RFID tags used to track produce freshness from farm to store
The researchers placed two radio frequency identification (RFID) devices into each pallet of strawberries as they were picked. The devices allowed them to track the strawberries’ temperature from the field, through pre-cooling and into truck to distribution centers and then on to stores.
Kimberly Moore Wilmoth, University of Florida | Sep 08, 2014
A University of Florida-led research team’s development of a tracking system could change the way companies ship fresh fruits and vegetables, letting them know which produce is closest to expiration and providing consumers the freshest products available.
Jeffrey Brecht, director of the UF Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences’ Center for Food Distribution and Retailing, studied strawberries beginning with their harvesting from fields in Florida and California to their delivery to stores in Illinois, Washington, Alabama and South Carolina.
The researchers placed two radio frequency identification (RFID) devices into each pallet of strawberries as they were picked. The devices allowed them to track the strawberries’ temperature from the field, through pre-cooling and into trucks (which can hold 28 pallets), to distribution centers and then on to stores.
Their theory is that if you know the quality of the produce and the temperatures to which it has been exposed, you will know which produce to deliver first to stores.
They specifically researched the theory of “first in – first out,” known as FIFO in the food distribution industry. And they found that “first expired-first out,” or FEFO, was a better way to distribute delicate fruits and vegetables.
Colleagues from the University of South Florida, Georgia Tech and industry partners collaborated on the project, funded by a $155,000 grant from the Wal-Mart Foundation. Brecht delivered a presentation this week on his findings at the International Horticultural Congress in Brisbane, Australia.
Companies normally measure only the temperature of an entire truck. But Brecht explained that individual pallets can vary greatly in temperature, depending on what time of the day berries were picked and even their placement on the truck. Strawberries picked in the cool of the morning and placed on a refrigerated truck would stay fresher longer than strawberries picked in the afternoon heat.
Brecht said under perfect conditions, strawberries can maintain a good quality, based on researchers’ scale of what’s acceptable, for up to 14 days. Less than perfect conditions, mainly due to a lack of temperature control, drastically reduce the berries’ postharvest life. It can take as long as four days to go from field to store, but that would be for a cross-country trip, such as from California to South Carolina.
Maintaining good quality, he said, helps consumers buy what is freshest and reduces food waste.
“If you improve the efficiency of postharvest handling, you reduce waste and losses and that improves sustainability,” Brecht said. “Because, of course, if you ship something to market that’s not going to end up being eaten by consumers, every single bit of input in growing it, harvesting, packing, cooling, shipping—everything is wasted.”
Former UF faculty Jean-Pierre Emond, of Georgia Tech, Cecilia Nunes, of USF, and Ismail Uysal, an assistant professor at the University of South Florida who was formerly a UF postdoctoral associate; Jeff Wells, CEO of Franwell, and Jorge Saenz, cold chain director at Hussmann Corp., were part of the research team.
The melon traceability system is dependent on the adoption of RFID (radio frequency identification) technology, which is a noncontact automatic identification communication technology that can identify multiple, high-speed moving objects simultaneously in most environmental conditions.
This technology has been widely used throughout the agriculture supply chain, with broadest adoption in the livestock industry. It has been successfully implemented in vertically integrated supply chains to track and monitor food from producer to wholesaler to retailer to consumer.
The traceability system creates a reliable database that is either collectively maintained through a decentralized and trustless method or is maintained through a centralized database (like the one being implemented by IBM in partnership with Walmart and the IBM Food Trust).
A blockchain system relies on the following: decentralization, as no organization owns the whole network; a trustless, open source system; collectivity, as all nodes (members of the chain) register and input data; and reliability of the database, with every node receiving a complete copy of the database with anonymity (nodes do not know the identity of other nodes).
While this has worked to some extent in the livestock industry, it is more challenging to implement in the fresh fruit and vegetables sector. Thus, a traceability system that is a variant of blockchain, using RFID, was found to be more likely solution for the melon industry.
Challenges to Implementation
Unfortunately, RFID technology has a high cost of adoption. Projects funded through land-grant institutions provide some opportunities in leveling the playing field for small- and mid-sized farmers to be able to market high-quality differentiated products. The minimum cost of an individual RFID tag is 30 cents in the United States but cheaper in China. Secondly, the traceability system itself also invokes additional equipment and programming costs.
Blockchain performance and development is not yet where it needs to be for full implementation of a decentralized, trustless, anonymous network to function as described above. The biggest challenges are technological. Producers face blockchain scalability, speed, and transaction challenges as well as a lack of agreement on what type of blockchain technology should be adopted.
Standardization and privacy are also huge challenges for extended produce supply chains with multiple participants. In the melon industry, the vast amount of manual paper transactions provides another obstacle to collecting and tracking off-chain data.
Finally, without top management support, user resistance provides a huge barrier to small and medium sized firms considering traceability systems adoption.
Without an innovative culture, the standard practices of farming, production, packaging, and distribution are liable to continue in a market with labor shortages and slow technological development and adoption.
This is multi-part feature adapted from the January/February 2020 issue of Produce Blueprints.
Tagged food safety, melons, rfid, traceability
Hannah Stolze is associate professor of marketing and supply chain management at Wheaton College in Wheaton, IL, and has a PhD in business administration with a concentration in logistic and marketing.
RFID to track produce from the field
Dole Fresh Vegetable launched a produce quality pilot program in March 2006 to see if radio-frequency identification (RFID) tags could improve the quality of leafy green products in the supply chain.
Less than six months later, Dole was hit with reports of a spinach outbreak involving Dole-branded products. Lessons learned in the quality pilot program are now being implemented to provide better traceability and food safety information for the fruit and vegetable company.
The RFID tag system is the next step in Dole’s traceability program, increasing the accuracy and decreasing the time to find the field that sourced contaminated produce. The company is not going to compete on food safety, said Eric Schwartz, president of Salinas-based Dole Fresh Vegetables. The company opened up a Soledad, Calif., field operation and processing facility in early May to members of the media to increase the visibility and transparency of the industry’s food safety programs.
How It Works
Dole is in the process of bringing all of its processing in-house, another move that was in the works before the E. coli O157:H7 outbreak last year, said Eric Schwartz, president of Dole Fresh Vegetables. Spinach will be brought in house by the end of 2007, and the company’s spring mix salads will be brought in early next year.
The new system, which will be rolled out at each of Dole’s four processing facilities and its hundreds of suppliers by early 2008, integrates GPS, RFID and cell phone technologies to track bins of leafy greens. When workers in the fields fill a bin, an RFID tag is applied and scanned with a hand scanner that works on cell phone frequency. The technology had to be able to communicate with the entire network, so suppliers’ fields had to have a cell phone signal.
The bins leave the fields on trucks for the processing facilities where the produce enters cooling tubes. Automatic scanners read the RFID tag on the bin, and if the set parameters aren’t met the workers won’t be able to put the produce into the system. If, for example, a truck broke down between harvesting and cooling, when the scanners see that the bin sat for longer than was allowed, a message will pop up on the dock’s computer monitor that reads: “cannot accept into production.”
The same process is followed throughout production, so if a bin is caught in a backup anywhere in the system, it won’t be processed if it goes outside the company’s set parameters.
When used in conjunction with raw material testing, the GPS-enabled RFID tags give Dole a precise location where the produce was harvested – not just a field, but a 30-foot area in a field. The closest a hold program by itself can get is 1 acre to 100 acres, depending on the lot size. So, if a batch tests positive for contamination, the company can go back and investigate where the problem occurred with certainty.
Dole’s pilot program was expensive – a couple million dollars, Schwartz said. And it will be several million more to put the system in each plant. The cost is not a one-time cost, either. The one-time-use tags go for 30 to 35 cents each, and there are about 2,000 bins moving through production every day.
Schwartz said there would be a slight cost saving with the system, but the real reason for implementing it was the additional traceability and a higher-quality end product that consumers would see on store shelves.
“It really was the quality control,” he said. “We needed a better way to know where the bins were sitting.”
There is some benefit to streamlining the process, and the RFID system has helped identify where backups were occurring in the process. Schwartz said the processing facilities had been working on a “hurry up and wait” mentality, but now that the location of harvested bins is known the plant can organize its workforce more efficiently.
“It’s much easier to balance the harvest tubes with the cooling tubes now,” he said.
When all of Dole’s plants and fields go online, the company will be leading the curve in the next step of traceability. Recordkeeping and traceability is required under HACCP, Good Manufacturing Practices and regional matrixes like the California Leafy Green Marketing Agreement, but more research is needed to find the cause and method of action of E. coli O157:H7 and other human pathogens.
“Traceability is not a cure, but it’s what you need to find the source,” Schwartz said.
That’s where he thinks government should step in to guide the industry. Not regulating procedures, but focusing on what it does best: inspecting, verifying and providing research dollars.
“That’s what we need them to continue to do,” Schwartz said. “More regulation is not going to fix the problem.”
The industry can play a role in developing food safety practices, because processors are dealing with it every day, Schwartz said. They can help with research too, such as the creation of the Center for Produce Safety at the University of California, Davis in April. The Produce Marketing Association gave $2 million of the initial $4.65 million to start the center – money that came from the produce industry. Industry leaders have stepped in to help as well, with Taylor Farms supplying $2 million to the center and Fresh Express awarding up to $2 million in research grants for studies on E. coli O157:H7.