It 's Not Easy Being Green

Spinach growers and retailers could see millions in losses as a string of E Coli outbreaks have been linked to the leafy greens. The problem spotlights supply chain issues in the food industry, a situation RFID proponents say could be resolved through the use of the technology.

The food industry has been slow to accept Radio Frequency Identification technology; manufacturers don’t like the cost and potential technological problems, and consumers don’t want Big Brother tracking their goods into their homes and refrigerators. The recent high-profile problems with spinach and E Coli, however, raise the question of whether RFID should be implemented as an additional safety net for consumers.

As a result of the recent E Coli scare, the market for spinach has disappeared. The current outbreak is the tenth to come out of California since 1995, and according to the Food and Drug Administration, as of October 6, 199 cases of E Coli have been linked to contaminated spinach in 26 states, with an additional case in Canada. 

The hardest hit areas will be Monterey, San Benito and Santa Clara, California, where the outbreak originated. According to the California Dept. of Food and Agriculture, the value of California’s total spinach crop last year was $258.3 million. But the affects may also be felt in the profits of the other major spinach supplying states of Arizona, New Jersey, Texas, Colorado and Maryland.   

The impact of the outbreak on spinach could cost the industry $1 million per week, not counting the loss from food service and facility downtime, said Jerry Welcome, executive vice president of United Fresh Produce Association. Welcome said the fresh-cut industry, or those types of produce that are processed, such as bagged leafy greens, is a $16 billion industry, and of that, spinach is $350 million. California accounts for 75 percent of the nation’s supply.

Tim Chelling, vice president of communications for Western Growers Association, described the recall recovery process as a form of “collaboration and cooperation” between the growers and FDA. He added that the industry “will take whatever steps are necessary to ensure food safety.”

On September 28, Charles Sweat, COO of Natural Selection Foods, held a media briefing to announce changes that the company will be adopting to ensure better food safety. These changes include working with farmers from seed to harvest, inspecting seeds, irrigation water, soil, soil amendments, plant tissues and wildlife; enhancing and monitoring existing sanitation protocols; and the creation of a “firewall.” The company will test all greens that are brought to its facilities before they enter the production system. If anything is detected, the entire lot will be destroyed.

While modifying testing and sanitation standards is certainly a step in the right direction, the concept of RFID has also been suggested. By using tags and readers, products, such as processed produce, can be monitored during several steps of the production process. The more times a product can be checked for quality and safety along the supply chain, the lower the chance of something like E Coli reaching the consumers.

“Supply chain security is very important for food products, both as part of America’s fight against terrorism, as well as accidental health dangers that can contaminate the food chain,” said James Jones, Chairman of GlobeRanger Corp., an RFID middleware vendor. “RFID tags represent the next generation of technology that will replace bar codes and provide so much more information that will make the supply chain so much more efficient and actually provide protections to the consumer.”

The future of RFID will offer the possibility to log data on temperature, speed, and other metrics besides location, according to Ebrahim Keshavarz, Director of Emerging Services for the Business Development Team at AT&T. By working together to find visibility points in the supply chain and develop a form of standardization, Keshavarz believes that RFID can become an economical solution. A horizontal platform would allow companies across the industry to implement RFID to fit their individual needs.

Matt Croson, vice president, Member Services and Communications with the Packaging Machinery Manufacturers Institute (PMMI) says current RFID technology is costly and is seen as “another tag, another label, something else that we need to put on a product…
Adding to the overall price of the product to enable an RFID tag won’t sit well with consumers.” Picture adding an extra dollar for an extra bar code to the cost of a can of soda.

A bar code system is currently in use and has worked well enough for the government to track the tainted spinach back to the three counties in California. That system, combined with the FDA’s existing Lettuce Initiative that was designed to quickly alert consumers to problems with leafy greens, has proven effective at narrowing the source of the current outbreak.

And cost isn’t the only factor. The technology needs to be improved in order for it to be more attractive to companies. A change in temperature or humidity, for instance, can render a tag useless. When shipments are moved to warehouses and distribution centers, some of those facilities have steel walls, and if the signal is bouncing off the walls, it is difficult for the antenna to pick it up properly. On pallets, the products that are stacked in the center are blocked and cannot be read. Transportation costs may have to increase to adjust the packaging if products can’t be located in certain areas due to their RFID tags.

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