Massachusetts Oyster Farmer Putting IoT to Work

By employing a heat-sensing camera and attaching temperature sensors to shipments of live oysters, one aquaculturalist hopes to change how shellfish growers track their products.
By Mary Catherine O'Connor

Should consumers report illness due to consuming oysters, representatives from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration's National Shellfish Sanitation Program (NSSP), or a local or state-level affiliate, contact the grower and all supply chain partners to inquire about the shipment's temperature history, in order to compile a complete view of that history. "With all shellfish," Ward states, "the goal is to reduce the temperature to 45 degrees Fahrenheit [7.2 degrees Celsius] as soon as possible after harvest and keep it there until it reaches the final consumer." State agencies set the amount of time by which shellfish must be brought to 45 degrees Fahrenheit post-harvest, Ward says; some states mandate that this occur within one hour, while others give a five-hour window.

"The Vibrio bacteria growth rate follows an exponential growth curve with increasing temperature," he explains. "If [a shipment] sits on a truck at 60 degrees on a cloudy day in May, it may be many hours or days before the bacteria can grow to a density which would cause sickness. However, if the oysters sit on the back of a hot truck at 90 degrees on a sunny day in July, the bacteria could proliferate within hours to a level which may cause sickness."

According to Ward, the government can take up to 45 days to complete the tracking process, from the day that a batch of oysters is harvested until the time that an outbreak of illness is attributed to that batch. "So if oysters harvested in mid-June end up being traced back to an illness, the oyster farm might not be made aware of this until late August," he explains. And at that point, the farm might be required to close while the investigation is conducted. "If the cause of the problem can't be determined, it always falls back on the farm," he says. "And no one wants to buy oysters from a farm that has been closed in the past due to health concerns."

That is why Ward plans to build on the use of the thermal radiometry sensor integrated in the camera by adding temperature-tracking tags to each bag into which the oysters are placed after being harvested and cleaned. Verizon representatives will bring the tags—which will transmit temperature data to the ThingSpace platform via its cellular network—to Ward's aquafarm later this month.

Exactly how many will be used and for how long are unknowns at this time. A representative from Verizon says the company is still busily testing and developing the sensor tags, and she could not specify the sensor manufacturers with which Verizon is working.

Ward's goal is for the tags to eventually replace the manual farm-to-fork record-keeping process currently used to track oysters' temperatures. For the pilot, however, he will first evaluate whether the technology works and how easily he, other supply chain partners and eventually the NSSP will be able to access each shipment's temperature history from ThingSpace. If the technology appears to work as promised, the next step will be to work out the economics and determine how tag cost—also an unknown at this time, Ward says—will be either spread across the supply chain or bore by consumers. "Will consumers pay a premium for oysters if they know they're less likely to make them sick? I think so," he says.

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