Food poisoning outbreaks could prove a boon to RFID

Recent national outbreaks of E.coli and salmonella poisoning are likely to prompt government mandates requiring that food products be tracked throughout their life cycles - and that could prove to be a boon for radio frequency identification technologies.

RFID providers get boost from FDA ruling

The new mandates would come just as other first-generation track-and-trace tools start to spread through the pharmaceutical industry, which was the first to face such government mandates, analysts said.

So far, bar-code systems and pen-and-paper processes are the most popular drug-tracking tools, but observers expect RFID to emerge as the long-term technology of choice in both the pharmaceutical and food industries.

Roy Wildeman, an analyst at Forrester Research Inc. , suggested that the advantages of RFID - such as ease of use, the ability to track individual products packed in crates and the ability to scan from significant distances - have so far been overshadowed by the technology's high price tag.

According to a Forrester study, a multibillion-dollar manufacturer can expect to spend $2 billion to $3 billion in start-up costs to implement RFID.

And once the technology is ready for use, companies face significant annual costs, Wildeman added, noting that the average price of 19 cents per RFID tag could mean that it would cost tens of millions of dollars per year to tag millions of items.

Nonetheless, "I think you'll see a cascading wave of [RFID] adoption in the [pharmaceutical and food and beverage] sectors, especially with growing mandates," Wildeman said. "It will be about public sentiment about food-related illnesses. I think that will bring pressure for the government to take action."

Impetus for change

Paul Chang, worldwide lead for business strategy for emerging technology at IBM , said the recent food-poisoning incidents, along with improvements in RFID technology, make 2009 "the year for traceability. It's the perfect storm for RFID - feasibility of the technology, industry adoption and the increased need for tracking the movement of goods."

Those incidents include a salmonella outbreak between April and early August of last year that infected nearly 1,500 people in 43 states and the District of Columbia, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention . The food-borne outbreak caused 286 people to be hospitalized, and it's listed as the possible cause of two deaths, the CDC said.

And a 2006 E.coli outbreak that was eventually linked to contaminated spinach caused 205 confirmed illnesses and three deaths, according to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration .

In statements, the FDA said its investigators were unable to determine the origin of the contamination, despite the use of product codes and the gathering of bacterial DNA from the bags the spinach was packed in.

Just last week, the FDA issued a warning that various peanut butter products contain a strain of salmonella that has sickened 485 people in 43 states and Canada.

The outbreaks come as U.S. Department of Agriculture personnel are studying an RFID tracking system being tested by Matiq AS, the IT branch of Oslo-based Nortura BA, the largest meat-processing company in Norway. Are Bergquist, managing director of Matiq, said that U.S. regulators turned to the firm to find out more about Matiq's response to Norway's government-mandated food e-tracking program. USDA officials did not respond to requests for comment on the project.

Bergquist said the test RFID system, created jointly with IBM, was installed in one of Matiq's 41 Norwegian processing plants. The two-year pilot program is now wrapping up, he added.

The company plans to use the system to track meat from its origin in the fields through the slaughterhouse, the butchery, and the packaging and shipping phases, until it finally arrives on supermarket shelves. The company hopes that the system can also keep track of different ingredients mixed into a single product, such as the different types of meat used in a mincemeat pie, Bergquist said.

"Tracking all the way back through the production process is a huge challenge because it's not an ordinary assembly line," he explained.

"The U.S. has been interested in the total solution," Bergquist noted. "Consumers would like to be pretty sure about the origin and quality and safety of their food before they buy it."

The demand among U.S. consumers for traceability should grow significantly as a result of the recent food-poisoning cases, he added.

Matiq expects the RFID tracking system to be up and running in all of its plants some time next year, he said.

Bergquist said the company is creating the complex tracking system even though Norway's track-and-trace law is fairly limited - requiring only that companies keep track of where they bought a source product.

Nonetheless, Bergquist said he's on a mission to convince the food industry of the benefits of using RFID for product tracking.

RFID "is not just good for food safety; it's good for [improving] inefficient handling methods, and processes and hand-overs from different levels in the chain. We have to increase the understanding of what benefits traceability and RFID can do for an organization," he said.

Waiting for Mandates

Michael Liard, an analyst at ABI Research in Oyster Bay, N.Y., agreed that RFID technology is the best fit for product-tracking systems. However, he added that widespread adoption won't occur unless the technology is required by state and federal legislation.

"People will jump to bar code [first] because it's a known entity," said Liard.

He suggested that over the long term, companies will be more likely to turn to RFID as they learn of its other potential uses.

"A bar code label is a bar code label," Liard said. "RFID tags have more punch behind them. That tag can have additional capabilities, like temperature logging and pressure sensing. If you're talking about food safety, then temperature becomes very important. That's where the value proposition starts to increase."

While the pharmaceutical industry has a head start in implementing track-and-trace systems, it lacks focus because states have passed inconsistent laws that must all be followed, noted Jim Stroud, president and CEO of drug wholesaler Golden State Medical Supplies Inc. in Valencia, Calif.

California has gained the most attention with its electronic drug-pedigree mandate, which calls for drugs to be identified and tracked through manufacturing, shipping, storage and sales.

California lawmakers are continuing to wrangle over the wording and start dates for the mandate. Other states are working on similar laws governing drug companies.

A federal mandate could prod the drug industry to create a standard tracking technology, Stroud said.

"We are hoping that with the new administration, there will be a new, overriding federal regulation. We want one federal rule as to how we are to provide [drug] pedigrees" - whether it's RFID tags or something else, he added. "We need one rule, one law."

Earlier this month, the FDA started the process of creating "a uniform track-and-trace system for prescription drugs to further enhance their safety and security." The agency is soliciting comments from drug makers on the recommendation.

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This story, "Food poisoning outbreaks could prove a boon to RFID" was originally published by Computerworld.

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