Where Does Your Food Come From? RFID Knows.

Posted by Ken Lynch on Mon, Mar 05, 2012 @ 10:05 AM

Tags: RFID, Sensors, Food Safety, Agriculture, Supply Chain, Cold Chain, Food & Beverage

Each year about 1 in 6 people in the United States gets sick from eating contaminated food, according to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC). Salmonella is responsible for many of the reported outbreaks and causes more hospitalizations and deaths than any other type of germ found in food. While E. Coli infections have been drastically reduced, there has been no reduction in people getting sick from Salmonella.

One way to cut down on illness caused by Salmonella is to apply lessons learned from past outbreaks as depicted below.

Farm Table

View larger version of the diagram (source: CDC)

Efforts to educate about prevention can be supplemented by enhancing the traceability of food shipments within the supply chain. The Food Safety Modernization Act calls for the FDA to focus on new food traceability rules to prevent contamination.

A report issued recenlty by ABI Research, “RFID-enabled Food Safety and Traceability Systems,”  reviews the Food Safety Modernization Act and provides forecasts for the use of RFID-enabled devices in cold chain applications. RFID allows the food industry to trace food items and record environmental conditions throughout the entire supply chain.

Sensors in RFID tags monitor the temperature and humidity of products. They can detect if the temperature for a specific food item goes above or below the ideal temperature, at any given time, and record that detail. Tags can be used on anything in the supply chain from the farms, to slaughterhouses, to pallets, to shipping containers, to grocery stores. Even the cows and pigs can be tagged.

You may remember the Orange Juice recall from this past January. CNNMoney noted that if there is wide adoption of a traceability solution in the industry, it could stop the contaminated food from being put onto store shelves in the first place, and help stop outbreaks before they start.

Aside from preventing food borne illnesses, ABI Research also points out that the information delivered by an RFID traceability solution could have a significant impact on the $35 billion a year in wasted produce. With the environment detail captured by the RFID readers during the supply chain, a grocer or manufacturer can determine precisely which containers were exposed to temperatures outside of the ideal range, and discard only those containers instead of discarding the entire shipment.

The prevention of waste or food borne illness is enough to warrant an RFID food traceability mandate in my book. Being able to impact both? I’ll let you do the math.

RFID Making Fresh Produce Cool

Posted by Ken Lynch on Tue, Dec 13, 2011 @ 10:22 AM

Tags: RFID, Sensors, Food Safety, Agriculture, Cold Chain, Temperature Monitoring

Cold ChainI have to admit that I buy organic milk, not just because I think it’s healthier for my family, but because I can stock up on it without the risk that it’ll go bad before we use it. Why does organic milk have such a longer shelf-life than regular milk? Maybe they’ve figured out something that the others haven’t. Maybe it’s Intelleflex.

Recently, the company developed what they call the Cool Chain Quick Scan. It helps farmers and shippers identify spots in their temperature-controlled supply chain - or cold chain - to improve freshness. This may sound familiar to you because during our 100 Uses of RFID program, we blogged about RFID enabling temperature tracking in real-time for sensitive, pharmaceutical shipments. Now we learn about it being used to track produce temperatures, which makes a ton of sense. 

The time for fresh produce to be harvested, cooled, processed and shipped can vary by hours and is influenced by several external factors beyond the farm. Air temperatures of refrigerated vehicles add to the complexity because they vary significantly, potentially causing the food to go bad before it reaches the store. That could explain the condition of the avocados I see in my supermarket.

The Cool Chain Quick Scan replaces guesswork, visual inspections and First In/First Out inventory methods, with a snapshot of the cold chain. It identifies, measures and documents the impact of the temperatures on the produce. The monitoring is continuous - from the field, to the pack house, through distribution, and finally the retail store. It sounds tedious, but with RFID, it’s easy and cost-effective.

RFID tags that use light, temperature and humidity sensors, are placed on the produce and processed as usual. For example, tags could be placed with produce in the field during harvest, or in pallets being transported from the pack house to distribution centers. Readers and condition monitoring tags use battery-assisted, passive RFID to read through pallets and containers with precision. The tags are removed at the pack house and mailed back to Intelleflex for analysis that is included in a detailed report, including:

  • Temperature variation that the product is experiencing
  • Amount of shelf life lost due to temperature issues
  • Impact on customer satisfaction
  • Recommendations to improve temperature management

This level of reporting can help farmers, distributors and retailers develop cold chain best practices.

By transforming climate monitoring from trailer-, container- and warehouse-tracking devices to individual pallet tags, RFID can give fresh produce suppliers detailed visibility into the lifecycle of the produce. They can use this new found visibility and resulting best practices to reduce shrink and improve profitability. Every fresh produce supplier’s dream come through thanks to – of all things - RFID.

RFID Migrates Upstream

Posted by Ken Lynch on Wed, Dec 08, 2010 @ 10:00 AM

Tags: RFID, Food Safety, Agriculture

Could This Mean the End of Human-Injected Hormones and Antibiotics in our Food?

FishFarm raised fish used to be preferred by consumers over fish caught in the wild. The belief was that we would be ingesting less mercury, often found in ocean-living fish in the form of a toxic organic compound. Then we discovered that farm-raised fish, as well as other animals like chickens and cows, were being injected with hormones to make them bigger and antibiotics to fight infection so they could continue to bring in revenue. That knowledge led people to be very diligent about knowing where their food came from. Many people I know stopped buying farm-raised fish in favor of the potential mercury exposure.

But RFID could solve the problem of impure food and also cross some other hurdles along the way.

Researchers in Thailand have explored the benefits of using RFID to track and monitor growth to improve breeding of stock, or in this case fish. King Mongkut's Institute of Technology Ladkrabang embedded passive RFID tags in giant prawns, tilapia and walking catfish. These species represent a significant export for the country, so it’s no wonder they would want to protect and even try to improve the broodstock. The RFID system was designed to track a fish’s growth on a monthly basis. The system comprised 10 millimeter glass transponders and handheld readers. The tags contained a serial number that identified each fish. The growth data and breed information was kept in a database. If the data showed that the fish wasn’t growing as it should be, cross-breeding could be implemented to improve the growth of the species. Sounds far more natural than injecting them with growth hormones!

This research project, funded by the National Electronics and Computer Technology Center, also served another purpose. Since embedding RFID tags into aquatic animals was fairly unchartered territory, the researchers used the project to help determine the best location for the tags and the least disruptive way to insert them into these small animals. They also tracked any physical affects the tags could have on them.

The project was considered a success because researchers concluded that the best place to insert the tags was in the abdomen, and the tags did not affect the growth or health of the fish. The findings were also to be used to promote the use of RFID in aquatic farm management and other food tracking industries.

Let us know your thoughts.  Do you agree that using RFID to monitor growth and the resulting "natural" methods of farming healthy seafood for harvest is a healthier to using hormones?

RFID for Counting Bees. Really?

Posted by Ken Lynch on Fri, Dec 03, 2010 @ 03:50 PM

Tags: RFID, Asset Tracking, Food Safety, Agriculture

Beekeepers, Farmers, Buyers and Consumers Benefit from Hive Monitoring

BeesDo you know what portion of the average diet is directly attributed to honey bee pollination? According to estimates, over one-third of the calories in an average American's diet comes from honey bee-pollinated food – including a wide variety of fruits, vegetables, nuts and berries.  That’s an incredible statistic if you think about it, and may give you pause the next time you reach to swat a honey bee flying around your summer picnic food.

Given the importance of the honey bee in the food chain, it is no surprise that farmers and beekeepers are concerned with keeping the bee population safe.  And, yes, believe it or not, RFID is being used in several ways to do so.

RFID for Beehive ID & Production Control

Like many components of an agricultural or manufacturing process, a beehive is a valuable asset.  As such, it is important for beekeepers to know where their hives are and whether they’ve been tended to properly.  By applying RFID to their processes, beekeepers, industrial buyers and producers can get real-time visibility into the complete production chain.

A solution from Apitrack for example, includes RFID tags, handheld RFID readers and software that allows users to collect production data from extraction rooms, fractioning rooms and warehouses.  The result is real-time data that can be used for the traceability and safety of honey, wax and pollen.

RFID for Beehive Monitoring

Stealing a beehive has never been high on my list.  This probably has something to do with my fear of bees after finding out the hard way that I’m allergic to bee stings.  But, apparently hive theft is an issue for commercial farmers and beekeepers.  Commercial farmers often import honey bees to pollinate numerous food crops during a planting season. In fact, pollination service providers supply nearly two and a half million colonies of honey bees each year to pollinate the nation's crops.  And, due to their value and rental cost ($150 - $200), beehives have become a target for theft. 

To help protect beekeepers’ assets and farmers’ investments, Bee Alert has develop Hive Sentry, an RFID-enabled antitheft system that alerts owners when hives in the field are being moved.  Bee thieves beware - Bee Alert has also worked with the U.S. Army to train bees for military applications, so you may want to think twice before you try to steal a box filled with an ornery queen and her busy subjects.

RFID Inside the Hive

Honey bees have two major jobs in life – gathering food (pollen and nectar) and raising more bees.  Given their short lifespan of only a few weeks, honey bees are constantly producing a supply of replacements.  For beekeepers, this means inspecting hives in order to determine the colony’s health.  Frank Linton, a beekeeper and engineer, suggests in an RFID Journal article that RFID sensors could be used to measure the internal heat of a beehive to inform the beekeeper of the overall colony’s health and help to determine if any corrective action may be needed.

RFID for Counting Bees.  Really?

Beyond the anti-theft systems offered by Bee Alert, the company has also proposed a system that counts the numbers of bees coming in and out of hives.  Bee Alert envisions these Smart Hives® to be connected to a satellite communications system and a national network of beehive monitors to allow beekeepers – and presumably organizations like the USDA - to monitor the nation’s population of commercial bees and their health.

Prior to conducting research for this post, I wasn’t aware of the many uses of RFID in beekeeping.  But I guess I’m not all that surprised.  Despite my greater appreciation for the honey bee, I can’t promise that I won’t swat any more bees – that is unless someone can tell me how to use RFID to get over my fear of getting stung!

Are RFID Tags on the Ropes?

Posted by Ken Lynch on Thu, Oct 21, 2010 @ 01:53 PM

Tags: RFID, Agriculture, Food & Beverage

RFID Used to Improve Mussel Cultivation

Mussel RopesWithout a crystal ball, cultivating mussels is like a shell game (pun intended) where each one looks like the other and in order to win you have to remember which one was where at which time. Suffice it to say, that’s why the house (or the guy on the street) usually wins. Mussel cultivators need to better their odds because this is their livelihood, not a game.

In order to process mussels for the best sale and retail consumption, you would need to know how long each batch of mussels has been on each rope. This becomes trickier when the ropes move or get lost in a storm.

Mussel company Concepción Suárez Fernández, worked with the University of Vigo in Galicia, Spain, to devise a way to use passive RFID tags to track the ropes. The cultivation begins with the seeding of mussels on to the ropes which hang on a platform in the water. There they mature until harvest time. But how do the cultivators know when it’s harvest time when platforms can be more than 1,000 square feet, hundreds of ropes have been hung at different times, and oh yeah, like the shell game, they all look the same?

"We need a way to distinguish them. If you forget some of the ropes, the mussels can grow too big and fall to the sea floor." That was the sentiment of Jorge Nuñez, an owner of Concepción Suárez Fernández, which led to the introduction of RFID to Aquaculture.

Each rope is fitted with an RFID tag that is UHF and Gen2 compliant. The company is using tags from Premo Group, Confidex and Intermec Technologies that were developed to withstand the extreme conditions that the sea can bring like very cold temperatures, lots of moisture and rough motion due to storms.

A software program tracks all of the information about the mussels on that rope, obtained by the RFID tags. Now, cultivators can know when it’s the best time for mussels to be harvested. Needless to say, the enhanced process can increase revenue because fewer mussels are lost and fewer are harvested at the wrong time. As usual, with an RFID deployment, it would also seem that less time is spent on contingency planning and manually chasing down information.

As a consumer, I’m excited because who wouldn’t want to go to the store knowing they’re always going to get the best batch of mussels? What’s your favorite food whose supply and quality you’d like to see improved with RFID?

[Image credit: Inverlussa Mussel Farm]

Milkin’ It with RFID

Posted by Ken Lynch on Thu, Oct 07, 2010 @ 11:22 AM

Tags: RFID, Sensors, Agriculture

Robotic Milking Systems Use RFID and Sensors to Increase Production and Ensure Quality

CowHumans have consumed animal milk as part of our diet since around 5,000 BC and will for millennia to follow.  We’ve processed milk to make dairy products such as cream, butter, yogurt, ice cream and cheese.  To improve the production of milk and milk-based products, dairy farms have adopted many new technologies over the years.  Large scale dairy farming has seen innovation come by way of vacuum bucket milking, milking pipelines, milking parlors, and, yes, fully automated robotic milking. 

Robotic milking systems automate the tracking of milk production, in part, by using RFID to track and identify cattle as they enter milking stalls.  If a cow hasn’t been recently milked, the system dispenses feed pellets and initiates the milking process, while recently milked cows are allowed to move on through an open gate.  The system’s embedded sensors are used to detect changes in the milk’s temperature and color which are signs of possible illness.

According to a U.S. News and World Report story, Minnesota dairy farmers using these types of systems have seen an increase in herd productivity, resulting in overall improvements in daily farming operations.

To help identify sources of possible contamination, RFID is also used to track individual milk samples through mandated testing processes followed by dairy farming industries around the world.  For example, SAITL Dairy Laboratory in New Zealand has implemented an RFID-based identification and tracking system to test up to 30,000 vials of milk from dairy farms every day.

As reported by RFID Journal, SAITL’s solution uses RFID to ID batches and samples of milk by using a Texas Instruments 13.56 MHz passive RFID tag attached to the bottom of each vial.  SAITL lab workers process the milk-filled vials past RFID readers which send the tag data to a database to identify the specific tests that each sample must undergo.  According to SAITL, RFID has increased the speed and accuracy of their lab processing and minimized manual handling and resulting errors – helping to ensure the quality of milk produced by 11,000 New Zealand dairy farms.

So the next time you sit down for a snack of cookies and milk or pour milk into your breakfast cereal or cup of coffee, its possible that RFID helped deliver that carton of milk – safely and securely.

Let us know about other areas of the agriculture and farming that you feel can benefit from the use RFID.

E is for Agriculture?

Posted by Ken Lynch on Tue, Aug 17, 2010 @ 02:45 PM

Tags: RFID, Food Safety, Agriculture

How RFID Enables Sustainable Forrest Management, Accurate Apricot Harvesting and Food Safety

e-agricultureWe’ve all heard of e-commerce, e-learning and e-pharma - but e-agriculture?  E-Agriculture is a relatively new term that is used to describe the application of information and communication technologies across all aspects of agriculture related industries including crop cultivation, water management and harvesting - to post harvesting activities like processing, food transportation, packaging, preservation, quality management and storage.

In a previous post, we discussed how ThingMagic partner Harvest Tec is integrating RFID into hay baling machines to improve the quality of hay for livestock consumption and to increase its market value.  Here are a few more e-agriculture examples:

Next-Generation Dendrochronology

Tree rings tell the life story of a tree. For each year a tree ages, another ring adds itself to the inside of the trunk. Analyzing tree rings can provide information about the age of the tree, what the climate was like during its life, if it was damaged in any way and if it encountered drought conditions.  Taking a step beyond dendrochronology (the science of studying tree rings to date past events), RFID is being used by commercial growers to collect data about the lineage of trees for planting, harvesting and sales purposes.

Hawaiian Legacy Hardwoods (HLH) is one company implementing RFID for these purposes.  Situated on Mauna Kea, a dormant volcano in Hawaii, HLH raises koa trees for furniture building.  The trees begin their life in biodegradable pots in a nursery with a corresponding RFID tag placed in the soil.  Each RFID tag stores data about a tree’s lineage which is referenced at the time of planting in order to maintain a diversified and healthy forest.  At planting, a second RFID tag is placed in the soil next to the tree, raised high enough to be read from a distance of ten feet.  As the trees age, the tags are updated to include fertilization records and other growth related information.  Each field of trees is also mapped out according to latitude and longitude coordinates and the GPS location of each tree is stored on the tag as well.  Handheld RFID readers are used to acquire data from the trees which is periodically uploaded to HLH business systems.  At the time of harvesting, investors interested in purchasing koa tree timber are presented with each tree's lineage and growth data to help with their purchase decisions.

An Apricot Grower In The Know

Qew Orchards in Tasmania is one of the largest apricot orchards in the southern hemisphere.  To improve how they manage their commission-based picking process they’ve turned to RFID to track each picker’s daily progress.  Replacing an inefficient and cumbersome paper-based system with an RFID solution, Qew Orchards now issues employees an RFID-enabled picker card and RFID crate tags.  The ruggedized credit card sized tags are associated with the picker ID card at the beginning of each day.  When crates full of apricots are moved onto an RFID-enabled scale, the crate number and picker productivity is tallied and sent off to payroll.  With this system, pickers are guaranteed to receive compensation for each crate they turn in.

Food Safety

As noted in a previous post titled Addressing Food Safety Issues with RFID, we pointed out how there is an incredible opportunity, if not a responsibility, for growers, distributors and retailers to expand their use of technology, not just to enhance efficiencies, but to create value for their customers in ways that promote health and safety.  One such system is being developed by the University of Arizona's School of Plant Sciences.  The system uses RFID and GPS to allow farmers and retailers to trace lettuce through the supply chain while offering farmers a better view into the productivity of their fields.  Beyond the use of RFID and other communication technologies to drive efficiencies into the produce supply chain, just think about how this type of system could help prevent outbreaks of E. coli and food safety concerns.

If you have an e-agriculture success story or project that could benefit from RFID, please let us know.

(image source: yellowpages.com)

Improving Farming with RFID

Posted by Ken Lynch on Tue, Aug 10, 2010 @ 10:00 AM

Tags: RFID, Sensors, Agriculture

Making Hay with RFID

Farming includes a wide spectrum of agricultural activities. At one end is the subsistence farmer, who farms a small area with limited resources.  At the other end is commercial and industrial agriculture farming which involves large fields, large numbers of animals, and a high level of mechanization and efficiency.  While farming has been around for a long time (reportedly since 8000 BC!), the ways in which land is farmed and is constantly evolving.  As a result, each acre farmed is producing more food for more people – an important trend given the world’s population growth trends.

When you think of RFID and sensors being used in the agriculture and farming industries, tracking livestock with low frequency (LF) RFID tags to automate processes like feeding, weighing, and disease management may come to mind.  Or, maybe using RFID and sensors for food security and cold chain systems.  But hey, what about automating hay harvesting?

Harvesting Hay with RFID

Harvesting hay is a very precise process with a very large impact on the success of a farm’s feeding program.  Not only do livestock get nourishment from eating hay, but farmers who harvest hay need it to be top quality in order to sell it for a good price.  Hay is at its prime during a specific one week period during its maturation.  Passed that point, it becomes coarse and dry and much of its nutritional value has faded. Once the hay is cut, it then has to be dried and then baled. Tracking the moisture levels in bales is one of the most important aspects of the entire hay baling process.  A bale with a moisture content above 20% is at risk for spontaneous combustion due to elevated heat levels during its respiration process.  Any bale harvested below 12% has experienced field losses, leading to low feeding value and yield losses.

As with any job or process, not everything always goes perfectly and in the business of hay harvesting, the quality of some bales turn out to be better than others.  Cows’ multiple stomachs can properly digest hay at many different qualities - even moldy. But, the production of milk and meat from cows fed high quality hay is significantly higher than those fed a lower quality.  Other animals such as horses are at a higher risk of getting sick from eating bad hay – elevating the need for growers to produce high quality hay for these species.

What was once managed manually can now be done much more efficiently with newer technology and machinery.  Advances in baling equipment have led to the production of large square bales that have increased field harvesting capacities and mechanized handling and feeding.  Bales can now be created by one tractor that cuts and rolls it in one step.  Conditioners are available to speed up the drying process and now – believe it or not - RFID tags are being incorporated to monitor every detail about each individual bale.

In the Field with Harvest Tec

Harvest Tec

ThingMagic partner Harvest Tec offers a useful RFID Bale Identification Systems add-on for three popular hay baler machines: AGCO, New Holland, and Case IH.  Harvest Tec chose to develop RFID-enabled solutions because of the technology’s widespread use across many industries and low cost per tag.  In their solution, as the bales are leaving the tractor a thin RFID tag is wrapped around one of the twine holding the hay together.  On this small tag, all of the data essential for farmers is stored.  With either a handheld or tractor mounted reader anyone can see which field the hay came from, on what date it was harvested, average and high moisture levels, temperature, weight, amount of preservatives used, latitude and longitude of the position the bale was harvested from, and a unique ID number.  With this valuable information, farmers can distribute hay to their livestock and ensure it is of consistent quality.

The rest of the hay can be sold for a higher price since the buyer knows exactly how nutritious each bale is.  Bales with too much moisture or mold can be removed from a stack so they don’t contaminate the rest of the bales.  These bales can then be efficiently used to feed cows or other uses where top quality is not a priority.

Harvest Tec has produced a few cool videos and have them posted on their website.  Check them out and let us know about other areas of the agriculture and farming industries that you feel can benefit from the use RFID.

Addressing Food Safety Issues with RFID

Posted by Ken Lynch on Sat, May 08, 2010 @ 12:48 PM

Tags: RFID, Sensors, Healthcare, Food Safety, Agriculture

With the most recent E. coli outbreak, which has sickened 19 people in 3 states, we have to ask ourselves, at what point will it be considered unethical to not use low cost tracking technologies such as passive RFID and low cost sensors to make it impossible for this to happen again?

As the Associated Press article, E. coli outbreak sickens 19 people in 3 states points out, local authorities had been investigating the outbreak for several weeks.  In addition to the life threatening illnesses and costly investigations that could have be avoided, imagine how much faster the contaminated produce could have been identified and removed from the retail supply chain by using data generated by RFID and sensors.

There are plenty of examples of passive RFID being used to drive efficiencies into the produce supply chain. There is now an incredible opportunity, if not a responsibility, for growers, distributors and retailers to expand their use of technology, not just to enhance efficiencies, but to create value for their customers in ways that promote health and safety.

One such innovation was recently presented to an audience at RFID Journal LIVE! 2010 and covered by RFID Journal in an article RFID Tracks Leafy Greens in Arizona.  As detailed, researchers at the University of Arizona's School of Plant Sciences are developing a system that uses RFID and GPS to allow farmers and retailers to trace lettuce through the supply chain while offering farmers a better view into the productivity of their fields.

Similarly, ThingMagic is working with several partners in agriculture related markets, focused on developing and implementing solutions that can improve the quality and safety of goods moving through supply and cold chains.

If you have a food safety project that could benefit from our full line of embedded RFID, fixed RFID reader and embedded active sensor R&D program, please let us know.

The Growth of Wireless Sensor Networks

Posted by Yael Maguire on Mon, Feb 23, 2009 @ 06:40 PM

Tags: RFID, Sensors, Agriculture, Rugged RFID Reader

The Christian Science Monitor has a great article on networked outdoor sensors. The article focuses on the use of sensors to measure soil moisture levels at Camalie Vineyards in California.

As the article points out, wireless sensors are increasingly being used outdoors. Common applications include keeping track of temperatures, moisture levels and other environmental factors for a variety of high value crops including fruits, nuts and nursery plants.

Addressing similar market needs, ThingMagic builds rugged RFID readers designed for use in harsh environments. Our readers are being used to monitor the moisture content in bales of hay, keep track of cars and trucks in maintenance yards, track tools at work sites, monitor temperatures in fresh produce cold chains and a wide variety of other outdoor applications.

Passive RFID is well suited for these applications: passive RFID tags are inexpensive to buy, encode and deploy; they also do not require their own source of power; RFID readers come in a variety of economical form factors, including handheld and mobile versions. This combination makes it easy to deploy the system in almost any outdoor situation.

RFID readers are also designed to be network ready and fit into existing IT infrastructures, or simply move the sensor data to PCs or Internet applications.

ThingMagic has an active sensor R&D program and is working with several partners on commercial sensor products. More on this in coming months.

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