Food poisoning suspected at kids’ summer program

Industry Must Promote RFID's Role in Food Safety

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The U.S. Food and Drug Administration plans to issue guidelines within three months regarding how to create a system to trace tainted food, and RFID needs to be part of the plan.

By Mark Roberti

July 13, 2009—On July 7, U.S. Vice President Joe Biden gathered with cabinet secretaries, members of Congress and food regulators at the White House. After numerous outbreaks of food-borne illness, the Obama administration wanted to publicize its commitment to food safety. As part of a plan to protect the public, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) indicated that in three months, it would release advice regarding how farmers, wholesalers and retailers can build systems to trace contaminated foods quickly in order to determine where an outbreak began.

Do people working on different task groups within the FDA talk to each other? The FDA has been studying how to use technology, including radio frequency identification, to track pharmaceuticals through the supply chain, and it has a deadline of March 2010 to effect a pedigree system. But I haven't heard much from the organization about using a similar approach to enabling food recalls in the event of an E. coli or salmonella outbreak.

In fact, I haven't heard anyone in the administration talk about using RFID to improve food safety. In President Barack Obama's weekly radio address of Mar. 14, for instance, he did not mention either RFID or serialization upon announcing the appointments of Dr. Margaret Hamburg as FDA commissioner and Dr. Joshua Sharfstein as principal deputy commissioner, and the creation of the President's Food Safety Working Group.

But the RFID industry has not done a good job of promoting the benefits of RFID technology in enhancing food safety and facilitating recalls (see The RFID Industry Misses the Boat on Food Safety). The reality is that no matter how much governments expand inspections, tighten regulations and promote safer business practices in an attempt to stop outbreaks of food-borne illnesses, they will continue to occur. And with the food chain becoming increasingly global, having a standards-based system to capture data cost-effectively and share that information in near-real time is going to be essential.

Bar codes will continue to be an important part of any traceability solution, but RFID is essential because data can be captured without a great deal of human labor. Tracking individual lots of food items at every point of the supply chain would require an army of people equipped with bar-code scanners. RFID, on the other hand, can capture serialized data without any human intervention. In the wet, muddy conditions of a farm, RFID is simply more effective than bar codes. And low-cost sensors are emerging to detect when food is exposed to higher-than-acceptable temperatures.


Moreover, GS1 and EPCglobal have been supporting a great deal of research into standards for creating secure pedigree documents for drugs that can apply to food. The organizations have also been considering the technology, data and messaging standards needed to track back where tags have been read and share this data quickly via the Internet. I'm sure someone in the U.S. government is aware of all of this, but I don't know if anyone on the President's Food Safety Working Group is up to speed.

If you feel, as I do, that RFID can help protect the public and ensure food safety, then submit your comments to the working group online, or write letters to the group's co-chairs:

Kathleen Sebelius
Secretary of Health and Human Services
The U.S. Dept. of Health and Human Services
200 Independence Ave. S.W.
Washington, D.C. 20201


Tom Vilsack
Secretary of Agriculture
U.S. Department of Agriculture
1400 Independence Ave. S.W.
Washington, DC 20250

In your letters, stress these points. RFID technology has matured to the point where it can be used to collect the serialized data required to track individual lots or batches of food. It does not require human intervention, and thus will not drive up labor costs. The technology has been proven at the state level (see Hawaii Plans Trace-Back Program for Fresh Food) and in the use of tracking livestock; in fact, several governments, including Canada, Australia and New Zealand, have mandated the use of RFID to track cattle. And the Auto ID Labs have been developing "discovery services" that would enable companies to trace where and when a product's RFID tag was read in the supply chain (see Designing Discovery Services).

The FDA could do a world of good by launching a national RFID pilot in conjunction with industry to examine how a national or even global system might be managed, and how companies might benefit from utilizing the data captured for track and trace to improve the way they do business. How about using some of the stimulus money to stimulate an international movement to improve food-chain safety and traceability? There's an opportunity here for government and industry to use RFID to do something good for consumers, as well as for business. Reducing waste and improving food-chain efficiencies is also good for the environment, and could help fight hunger (see Mending Broken Links). But nothing is going to happen unless we light a fire under the folks in Washington.

Mark Roberti is the founder and editor of RFID Journal. If you would like to comment on this article, click on the link below. To read more of Mark's opinions, visit the RFID Journal Blog or click here.



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