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How Barcodes and RFID Tags Improve Food Traceability


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A series of recalls of tainted food in the United States over the past few years – causing thousands of foodborne illnesses and even some deaths – highlights the need for improved food traceability.

In just the past five years, beef was linked to an E. coli outbreak that sickened 17 people, 143 million pounds of beef was recalled in Los Angele; then, over 20,000 people became ill and nine died because of tainted peanut paste; and one death and 76 illnesses were linked to salmonella infested ground turkey. Over the same period of time, there have been many more cases.

Effective food traceability systems offer three primary benefits:

(1) Improved food safety.
(2) Reduced costs – especially during product recalls.
(3) Increased transparency of all links in the food chain.

Ensuring food safety has become more and more difficult as the distance food has to travel from field to supermarket has increased. As consumers have grown to expect foods to appear year round, producers can be further and further away. And this means that the number of links in the supply chain has also grown significantly.

When food cannot be easily traced from the supermarket back to the field, the manufacturing plant, or the slaughterhouse, there can be high financial ramifications in case of a recall. But with accurate food source data, instead of destroying an entire shipment, an outbreak can be tied to a specific lot or batch number, minimizing costs.

And when each link in the food supply chain becomes more transparent, consumer confidence increases. This confidence breeds trust and loyalty.

Both bar code technology and radio frequency identification (RFID) have been shown as important tools in effective food traceability. Here are a few examples.

Tracking work in process or managing the product flow had never been an exact science in a meatpacking plant until RFID proved that it could withstand the harsh environment. Rugged readers that can withstand washdown and infiltration from bacteria are a requirement in this environment. RFID offers the meatpacking industry and other food processors an automatic identification technology that is reliable and effective. Once specific lots of meat can be tied to an individual animal carcass, the distance between your local meat counter and the meatpacking plant shrinks.

Two-dimensional bar codes (QR codes) are being used on a limited basis by retailers in the United States. Consumers can use their smart phones to see the exact journey of their produce from the field to the supermarket.

North of the border the Canadian Cattle Identification Agency (CCIA) manages the Canadian Livestock Tracking System which was designed to contain and eradicate animal disease. To date, Canada maintains the only mandatory, national identification program for the cattle industry. The CCIA also works with the Canadian Food Inspection Agency to ensure the food safety of the Canadian cattle industry. Before cattle leave their herd of origin in Canada, each animal must be tagged with a CCIA RFID tag, which tracks it from birth to retirement. So any recalls can be pinpointed to a specific animal.

Installing solutions like these for food traceability in the United States will not be an easy process, but with the help of current and future automatic identification technology, it can be done.

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