Pretend you’re an inspector for the Hawaiian Department of Agriculture and you’ve just arrived to examine several pallets full of produce — bagged spinach, for example. 

You know that the ideal temperature for transporting spinach, a particularly fragile green, is 32° F. You also know this spinach has been sitting in a Honolulu warehouse for at least six hours since it was unloaded from the plane. While it is February, this being Hawaii, the temperature has been hovering around a pleasant 73° for much of the day. 

Because you’re one of only a few inspectors available — your numbers have been declining in Hawaii for a while now — you’re also in a hurry to get the inspection completed and move on to the next shipment. You can break up the pallet to take a look at what’s inside but that takes a great deal of time, and simply looking at the produce will only tell you so much.

“Anyone who depends largely upon visual inspection is a fool anyway,” says John Ryan who, over the phone, brings to mind Jeff Bridge’s character, Dude Lebowski, in the movie The Big Lebowski. “Eyeballs just don’t catch it.”

OK, your career in produce inspection may have lasted only a few paragraphs but Ryan has been dealing with this issue for about five years now. He’s the administrator for Hawaii’s Department of Agriculture Quality Assurance Division and he’s been experimenting with some notable developments in cold chain traceability. 

In Hawaii, the vast majority of produce and other foods consumed by islanders – about 85 percent – are shipped in from Asia and the U.S. mainland, according to Ryan. Nearly all the produce undergoes inspection by the state’s agriculture department, a measure used to protect local agriculture and wildlife from invasive species and possible diseases. 

Those inspections can really bog down the whole shipping process.

As agriculture has declined in the islands, so has the number of inspectors, Ryan explains. Hawaii doesn’t have enough inspectors to get to each shipment as quickly as most would like. Consequently, when a pallet of produce arrives at the airport in Honolulu, it’s not unheard of for it to sit in a hot warehouse or on the tarmac for up to eight hours. 

Of course, it’s not only tropical paradises that have these problems. Back on the mainland, where most produce travels by semi-trailer trucks, there are even more issues to contend with. In addition to all the loading and unloading, the temperatures inside a trailer itself can fluctuate from one spot to another by as much as 30 percent. Besides the very basic problem of quality control, there are some serious food safety issues with which to contend. 

Transporting produce isn’t a seamless venture. A pallet of spinach may be loaded and unloaded a half dozen times or more as it makes its way from the farm in California to a grocery store in Wisconsin, with many hours of layovers in between. In fact, a pamphlet from the U.S. Department of Agriculture identifies as many as eight, but they throw a cargo ship into the mix for good measure. 

Throughout the journey — which for most farm goods can average about 1,500 miles in the United States — the spinach may encounter a wide range of temperatures, from its ideal of 32° F to substantially higher figures. A particularly delicate green, spinach doesn’t tolerate too much of a rise in temperatures before it begins to decay, shaving days off its shelf life. But quality isn’t the only concern.

Remember the spinach recalls of 2006? Spinach grown in San Benito County, CA, was exposed in the fields to E. coli 01:57:H from feces left by animals. Packaged and distributed to states as widely separated as Wisconsin and Maryland, the spinach was responsible for an outbreak that killed five people, including a 2-year old boy, and sickened at least 205 other people in 26 states. While there have been numerous outbreaks related to leafy greens since, the outbreak of 2006 was, arguably, the incident that brought the matter to public attention.

Already exposed to E. coli, that spinach traveled as much as 3,000 miles, no doubt encountering temperature fluctuations on the way. The optimal temperature for E. coli is 98.6° (which partially explains why it grows so easily in our guts) but it can grow in temperatures as low as 44° and as high as 122°. 

How do you tackle a problem like that? By keeping an eye on those temperatures, of course. Unfortunately, even that isn’t as easy as it sounds, although significant remedies are already available that rely on technology rooted in the Second World War: radio frequency identification. 

Ryan came to work in Hawaii familiar with the use of radio frequency identification, better known as RFID. He’d been working with electronic tracking systems in places like Korea, Malaysia, and Thailand. When he arrived in his new home, he recognized the pitfalls of the system Hawaii had been using.

“I basically went ‘what the hell are these people doing?'” he said. “‘Don’t they know there are solutions already?'”

A notable solution came from one of Ryan’s colleagues — a guy named Tom Reese whose small, Silicon Valley company, Intelleflex, was developing new technologies based on RFID. 

If you’re a commuter, you’re probably already familiar RFID. When you drive across a toll bridge, for example, it’s used in those plastic monitoring devices that sit on your dashboard and track when you enter the toll area, deleting the charge automatically. That device is called a tag and it picks up radio frequencies broadcast by another device called a reader.

The uses for RFID are potentially endless. Subway systems around the world use it to handle fares. Retailers such as L.L. Bean are beginning to install systems that signal when a potential customer has picked up an item on display, which, in turn, activates a nearby television monitor to play infomercials about that particular, or similar, products. Casinos have used RFID technology to track poker chips, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture has recommended their use to track cattle tested for bovine tuberculosis.

In the past few years, RFID has begun to be used to monitor the temperatures of produce as it travels from farm to store. With tags planted in a pallet of, say, cantaloupes, drivers can keep tabs on the temperature of produce as they drive it to its destination. While it’s a great way to monitor what’s going on back in the trailer, it’s a fairly limited application. The RFID used in this case – as well as most of the examples given earlier – is passive RFID. The reader sends out a signal, which activates the tag sending data back to the reader. The tags are expensive, they can only be read from a very short distance – about 40 feet – and, for the most part, they store only a limited amount of information. But that’s changing. Radically.

With the help of Intelleflex, Ryan was able to organize a pilot program to begin utilizing the company’s technology to more efficiently, and with much more detail, track produce through its journey from the farms where Hawaii’s produce is grown, to its final destination at retail stores throughout the islands. A pallet manufacturer in Taiwan donated plastic pallets for the experiment. They were important for two reasons: the pallets, unlike many wooden pallets, could be reused many, many times thereby decreasing costs, and they could also be designed to hold those vital tags in stationary positions throughout shipping. 

What Ryan got in return was a system that could track cold storage conditions almost from the instant the spinach, or any other produce, was picked in the fields in California to its arrival at a Sak N Save in Hilo. 

Intelleflex is headq
uartered in an office park just off Highway 101 in Santa Clara, not too far from Great America amusement park and right next door to the University of California Santa Clara Extension Office.

There’s really nothing remarkable about the offices themselves — there are thousands like them throughout Silicon Valley — but the work going on there could change the way Americans transport and safeguard their food. 

The privately held company is a favorite of some of the leading venture capital funds, including Arcapita Ventures, New Venture Partners, Morgenthaler Venutures, and the Woodside Fund. 

They’ve helped Intelleflex fund three RFID products that came out in the final quarter of 2010:   the HMR-9090 handheld reader, the FMR-6000 fixed reader, and the TMT-8500 temperature monitoring tag. 

Peter Mehring, Intelleflex’s chief executive officer, says investment is this RFID traceability technology provides a return on investment. Mehring, who formerly headed up Apple’s hardware group, says the RFID technologies work together to enable produce companies to locate their freshest product at all times.

Being its own computer chip developer helps Intelleflex keep its costs down, and allows it to offer very competitive prices. 

For example, other temperature-monitoring tags can cost up to $50 each. The TMT-8500 has a $25 base price and a two-year life. 

At this week’s RFID Journal LIVE! Conference in Orlando, Intelleflex’s new technologies for both fighting spoilage and traceability may be good enough for it to be named “Best of Show.”

In naming it as finalist for the award, RFID Journal said: “Intelleflex readers and tags are unique in delivering a range of 100+ meters and operating in RF-unfriendly environments, thereby enabling new business applications that were previously not practical or cost effective when active RFID was the only option on the market.”