In Pursuit of Fresher, Safer Foods and Drugs

Soon, RFID-monitoring perishables in transit and storage will be the new normal.
By Jennifer Zaino

TempTRIP is piloting a cooler- and freezer-monitoring solution with two U.S. supermarket chains, which Curkendall can't name at present. TempTRIP installed UHF RFID tags in the cases; employees remove the tags, take them to the stockroom to be interrogated by a handheld reader, and then replace the tags in the cooler.

To facilitate the process, the company is developing a key fob RFID reader that employees can attach to their key chains or belt loops. When the key fob is waved over a UHF RFID tag installed in a case, it will read and immediately send the log data (date, time and temperatures) and cooler ID via Bluetooth to an application on an Android mobile phone or tablet, which will upload the data to TempTRIP's website. Then, the tags will reset and restart. "All the results are on the Internet and can be seen from anywhere," Curkendall says. "This approach decreases transcription errors, increases accuracy, decreases manual workloads and provides a good audit trail for regulatory agencies." The device should be available first thing next year, he says.

TempTRIP is also running home-delivery trials in the United States and Europe with some unnamed retailers. Tags are placed in outgoing bags at a retail store or distribution center, and are later removed by the delivery driver so they can be reused. Right now, the tag data has to be uploaded to a Web application when the driver returns, unless he or she has a handheld reader in the truck. Curkendall says the key-fob readers, in conjunction with mobile device software, will make this option more attractive to potential customers. Drivers will be able to verify that food temperature ranges have been stable before they deliver products.

This shows consumers the retail brand cares enough to monitor their couriers and create an audit trail to ensure compliance with temperature specifications, Curkendall says. "Home delivery is really no different in a way from delivery to distribution centers," he says. "The same kinds of things [that affect food temperature ranges] can go wrong, like doors left open on a truck or refrigerators not as cold as they should be."

Another RFID cold-chain application on the horizon is thermal mapping of DC cold rooms to determine the location of hot and cold spots, McCartney says. This allows distributors to store perishables that are more sensitive to high temperatures in the colder areas and those that are less sensitive in warmer areas.

"There is a four- to five-degree shift in any given cold room," McCartney says, and research has shown that a 2 percent change in temperature can reduce perishables' shelf life by 50 percent. Real-time active RFID systems that relay temperature information wirelessly are more efficient than having employees manually poke around with temperature recorders (and likely going only as far as their arms can reach) to understand whether products are being stored in the right places.

"Oftentimes, it's a big revelation for [companies] to see wide swings in temperatures in any given cold room," McCartney says. "This is a huge area where there are a lot of efficiencies to be gained." One brand-name supplier of organic produce has already redesigned its entire cold-storage distribution system to take advantage of the information RFID is providing, he says.

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