RFID has role protecting human health

Alongside collaborative tools, radio frequency identification can help manage emergency efforts such as recall of contaminated food and notification of affected parties.
Written by Andy Wilkinson, Contributor

perspective With global concerns growing over health issues such the H1N1 pandemic, bird flu and food contamination, radio frequency identification (RFID) has the potential to minimize the impact of such incidents.

Coupled with collaborative technology, RFID can help manage efficient responses such as the recall of suspected food products and notifying affected parties. For example, a calf can now be tracked from birth to the slaughterhouse as it is in Australia, where the National Livestock Identification System legislation mandated, in 2005, RFID tagging for cattle stock.

There are even pilots where, combined with global positioning system (GPS) and "shock" technology, farmers can manage RFID-tagged cattle within certain geographical boundaries.

Let's envision how RFID and collaborative technology can work together to help assure the quality of pork humans consume:

    1. At birth, a piglet's ear is RFID tagged and relevant information recorded including the identity of its parents, vaccinations during pregnancy and birth details, such as weight and size. Some types of RFID tags can also automatically measure and record the temperature and pulse of a piglet, to trigger an alert in cases of fever, for example.
    2. As the piglet grows, its food consumption, inoculations and veterinarian treatment are recorded.
    3. When the piglet is trucked to the slaughterhouse, this is automatically registered, with a digitally-signed e-document to confirm it is from an "authorized" farm that complies with government health standards. This document is also called an e-pedigree.
    4. Upon arrival at the slaughterhouse, the e-pedigree is automatically verified that the piglet is from an authorized farm, and the receipt of the live piglet auto-recorded.
    5. At the time of slaughter, each slab of pork is packaged and RFID tagged, and cross-indexed with the "live" piglet's RFID tag.
    6. Upon leaving the slaughterhouse, a digitally-signed e-pedigree is once again attached to each pork packaging to identify the authorized slaughterhouse.
    7. The e-pedigree attached to each pork package is verified by the distributor or wholesaler, and every party handling the meat up to the supermarket. Any re-packaging is re-tagged with RFID and cross-indexed between the original and new pack.
    8. If the temperature during storage or transport exceeds the maximum allowed for fresh meat, an alert is sent out so that the problem can be fixed and if necessary, the meat destroyed. With GPS technology applied to the RFID tag, the location of the meat can be tracked at any time, usually as a whole pallet is being loaded, with the scanning of individual meat packages consolidated to the pallet.
    9. The final purchase of the pork can also be automatically recorded and cross-indexed to the original piglet--and subject to privacy constraints, the identity of the purchaser recorded if paid by credit card. The consumer could agree with the credit card company beforehand to be notified.

To facilitate recall
In cases of contamination or outbreak of disease affecting either the piglets or a batch of meat, this track-and-trace procedure allows the supermarkets, distribution centers, slaughterhouses, farms and consumers to be automatically notified. This allows product recall efforts to be effectively implemented.

All packages of meat that may be affected by the disease or contamination can be automatically identified and destroyed. Similarly, any piglet that may have come into contact with the diseased piglets can be identified for culling.

The application would also allow monitoring of the destruction program to confirm the diseased meat and piglets have been destroyed accordig to proper procedures, without re-entry into the distribution chain.

For this to be a reality, health standards and processes for authorizing and inspecting farms and slaughterhouses in some emerging economies need to be in place and enforced. Furthermore, the cost of RFID technology is still high for tagging of smaller animals and small packages of meat, though it is quickly becoming less costly.

It is a major challenge to enable all participants in the food-chain ecosystem to collaborate seamlessly, as described above. Each farm, slaughterhouse, wholesaler, distributor and supermarket, with its own way of doing things, will select technology that best suits its requirements and will define its own information requirements and formats.

However, in order for all parties to collaborate, the livestock RFID tag used by farmers has to be recognized and understood by the slaughterhouse. Similarly, the e-pedigree used by the slaughterhouse has to be understood by the wholesaler, and the RFID tag applied by the distributor to a package of meat has to be understood by the supermarket. In addition, all information and events produced by any of the players across the supply chain has to be understood by everyone else, and these various parties are likely located in different countries, speaking different languages.

While standards enabling interoperability across the food supply chain are critical, the development of these standards is still in its infancy and, in fact, somewhat of an ideal. In most collaboration chains, multiple "standards" and multiple "flavors of standards" are generally commonly used because of legacy systems, cost issues or technology changes.

In order for all parties involved to have trust in the entire supply chain, the confidentiality, data integrity and authenticity of collaboration must be 100 percent assured. There must be non-repudiation of origin, with audit trails providing proof of activity.

The quality of information has to be assured through strict context and participant-specific validation. The performance and reliability in processing enormous volumes of information and events, have to facilitate the avaiability of information at any time.

Business intelligence and complex event processing (CEP) applications need to be utilized, to provide supply chain visibility that allows the monitoring, analysis, prediction and prevention of incidents before they become critical. Visibility is also needed to provide near real-time views of performance against health standard benchmarks, allowing for the tracking and deployment of immediate alerts in cases where standards are contravened.

As such, companies need collaborative tools that are able to integrate, manage and provide visibility of an extensive level of detail, with a great variety of interfaces and communication technology standards.

There is also the need for the requisite guarantee of integrity, security, reliability and performance in a complex event-processing environment. Such processes are already being applied in the United States to enhance current track-and-trace procedures and spur future produce-traceability standards and technologies.

While there is still a lot to do, RFID can provide some comfort and assurance that only authorized farms and slaughterhouses can supply pork to supermarkets, and that if there is a disease outbreak or contamination alert, targeted notification can be carried out almost immediately. At the same time, a more targeted recall and destruction of affected livestock and meat packages can help to minimize recall-and-wastage costs.

Andy Wilkinson is senior vice president at Axway Asia-Pacific, a provider of collaborative business tools..

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