RFID tags may help improve food safety

By Rosie Lombardi, ITWorldCanada.com |  Mobile & Wireless

Recent food security scares have triggered public outcries and intense concern. People want to know exactly what is in their food, and what is done to it by whom.

In response, Canada and many other countries are introducing traceability requirements -- records that track all links in the food supply chain, from farmers to processors to retailers to consumers.

In the coming years, entire industries will be affected, and many are looking to RFID to automate tracking.

Regulation emerging in different regions reflects their specific concerns. In the U.S., fear of bioterrorism is high. The 2002 Bioterrorism Act resulted in the introduction of record-keeping rules this year to protect the food supply chain by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

In Europe, fierce territoriality -- in addition to extreme concern about mad cow disease -- is the driver. The E.U. wants to extend the World Trade Organization's (WTO) geographical indications to ensure products like Parmesan cheese or Dijon mustard really come from regions in Italy and France.

In Québec, which is influenced by E.U. general food laws, the Ministry of Agriculture is introducing regulation that will require whole chain traceability for beef and veal products, requiring one-up, one-down tracking -- record-keeping by each intermediary to track where it got its product and where it is shipping it.

At the federal level, the Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada agency recently released a policy framework outlining the direction of regulation over the next five years, stating the goal is to make 80 percent of all food products traceable by 2008.

"Traceability just means you need a system of record-keeping. It's a tool identify where products physically are, where they're going and where they've been. It can be done with paper or RFID tags. The government regulations are silent about how you do it -- they are outcome-based," says Justin Sherwood, vice-president of the western region for the Canadian Council of Grocery Distributors (CCGD).

The CCGD represents the interests of retail grocers and food service distributors across Canada, including major supermarket chains like Loblaws, Sobeys, and Thrifty Foods. The council is working with the government to develop industry solutions, supply chain best practices and data standards to satisfy regulatory requirements coming down the pipe.

"We looked at the processes and realized every single commodity, every supply chain, had its own definition of traceability and [implementation mechanisms]. So when you get to [the] retail level, it can potentially become a nightmare," Sherwood says. "You would have to support 15-20 ways to track products: beef one way, pork another, chicken yet another, and so on. The retailer would [face] a complete mess of information requirements and systems."

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