Back to the Farm

Nov. 1, 2009
RFID allows food manufacturers to trace a product throughout its entire supply chain and back to the point of origin.

The trouble with a large food recall — besides the fact that it's usually prompted by people getting sick — is that pinpointing the origin of the affected product never occurs as quickly as companies and the public would like. In the meantime, the producers of said food may end up scrapping tens of thousands — or even millions — of dollars of product that may not be affected, because the cause of the defect cannot be immediately determined. No one wants a situation like this to occur — not the public, not the producers, not the processers and certainly not the government.

Traceability — the ability to trace a product throughout its entire production cycle — is the pinnacle manufacturers strive to achieve to efficiently monitor product safety and quality. Though barcode technology is commonly used for this purpose because of its low cost, its high-brow cousin, radio frequency identification (RFID), has proven to be the upcoming powerhouse in traceability standards.

Where barcode technology contains unique serial data that accompanies the product throughout the production cycle and may be read by barcode scanners to record data, it may not be written to. This is perhaps the most important differentiating factor between barcode and RFID technology. RFID transceivers allow data to be both read and written to the tag, providing manufacturers with tighter control and more accountability for what is coming in and out of a facility. RFID tags also allow far more information to be recorded about a product at far faster rates than barcodes.

Another advantage RFID tags have over barcodes is their ability to be used repeatedly. Where barcodes accompany their product to infinity, RFID tags may be rewritten to many times over. Also, RFID tags tend to be more rugged and reliable because they may be incorporated into multiple housing types and styles to suit a particular application; barcodes printed or etched onto a part can succumb to wear from mounting challenges or wet or dirty conditions.

In and After the Process

In the food industry, RFID is driven by two primary technological needs: in-process and after-process. RFID is used in-process to trace product from the moment the raw material — like a hog — enters the plant, through all stages of production. In this case, an RFID tag may be mounted on the apparatus where the meat is hung. Plant personnel can write data to this tag, such as the date, the farm where the meat came from and any other important information about the process.

As the meat passes from one production phase to another, data is updated by read/write transceivers mounted at the entrance/exit of a room or by handheld devices used by plant personnel. In this way, a manufacturer can ensure precision down to how many minutes the meat was in each production stage, along with check points for increased reliability, resulting in fewer product rejects. Once the meat is through production and into packaging, data recorded on the tags is transferred to a database that stores all production information, and the tag may be reused with new raw material entering production.

Tags used in these processes have been designed to withstand the cold temperatures required in meat processing and are resistant to spray from water or other liquids used in the process. Usually tags with a mounting hole are affixed by a screw into the apparatus (hook) where the meat is mounted. Other times, manufacturers may create a customized tag to match the company's specifications.

Once a food product has been packaged, it enters the distribution cycle, where it may be sent any number of places across the country. This is where after-process RFID may be used. Though it is currently cost-prohibitive for most companies to affix an RFID tag on product packaging that is ultimately thrown away, research is being conducted to create a tag to counter this.

Where tags for this purpose currently run in the range of $0.30 to $40 per piece because of the silicon chip and copper antenna incorporated into the design, manufacturers are finding ways to eliminate the chip and use different material for the antenna to bring the cost down to the $0.01-per-piece range. Currently, the silicon chip stores the data on the tag, but new methods may allow data to be written directly to a metallic conductive material used as the antenna in place of more expensive copper.

The advantage of after-process RFID in this situation is that any piece of meat — from the loin to a rack of ribs — could be traced throughout distribution, back to its processor, even back to the farm from which it came. Therefore, if an issue occurred with a particular meat item, the FDA could quickly and reliably trace the product and determine where the original problem began, without necessarily involving dozens of other processors, distributors or manufacturers.

In some cases, RFID may have a larger initial investment than barcode technology, but as further advancements in technology are made, this cost will lessen. However, the benefits that accompany a well designed RFID system typically deliver a quick return on investment. The cost and time reduction alone is reason enough for some companies to implement an RFID system. Not only are reliability and chance of rejected products drastically improved and reduced, respectively, but, also, the chance for human error and the amount of paperwork required to keep track of a multitude of data is all but eliminated.

Mark DiSera is product marketing manager with the network and interface division of Minneapolis-based Turck Inc., a manufacturer of automation products.

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