We live in a world where consumer safety is top of mind, as product recalls seem to arise on a daily basis and new government regulations continue to come into play. For the food and beverage industry, safety efforts revolve around traceability, or creating an accurate chain of custody from farm to freezer to fork. After all, it takes just one product, ingredient or pallet reaching the wrong temperature to put the consumer’s health and the company’s reputation at risk.

To improve traceability, the cold food industry is turning to radio frequency identification (RFID) technology. Over the next six years, the global cold chain market for RFID is poised to increase at a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 29.1%, according to a 2016 report from P&S Market Research, New York. On top of that, the research firm estimates that the food and beverage industry accounted for the largest share of the global cold chain RFID market in 2015.

For those unfamiliar with the technology, RFID is a data collection method that uses low-power radio waves to send and receive information between tags and readers. Unlike barcode scanning or manual, “pencil and paper” methods, RFID does not require user-initiated, line-of-sight efforts. And, with the ability to simultaneously read and write to hundreds of tags within a read field, RFID enables data acquisition without additional labor or resources. This allows food and beverage companies to efficiently and accurately obtain, access and provide the necessary information for tracking and tracing products, while proving compliance with industry regulations. And, because data collected via RFID results from a machine-to-machine transaction, it is non-duplicable. Therefore, food and beverage manufacturers can authenticate processes and meet audit requirements with confidence.

Although there are two chief types of RFID tags—passive and active—passive, ultra-high frequency (UHF) RFID tags are most commonly used. Also known as RAIN RFID, these tags rely on a powered reader to reflect and transmit their signal. This makes RAIN tags perfect for tracking large volumes of products and ingredients as they move in bins or containers through an RFID portal. For instance, a food manufacturer attaches a RAIN RFID tag to a bin holding apples associated with a specific lot number. Whenever the bin passes through the portal, the tag is read and data is collected and uploaded to a database. This creates an audit trail with information about that lot, such as where the produce was picked, when it was picked and which machine processed the particular batch. 

With easy access to the audit trail, companies can quickly perform a recall. Let’s say the batch of apples was rotten, but was still processed into a frozen apple pie. Instead of pulling every single pie from store freezers upon reports of contamination, it is possible to look into the database and identify and pull just the affected batch. Think of the time, money and frustration saved.

In addition, some manufacturers have extended the traceability provided by RFID to their suppliers, where suppliers, growers and farmers can tag raw materials before they ship them off for processing. So, if there is a problem with the materials on the production line, the manufacturer can read the collected data, trace the issue back to where that item originated and alert the supplier. This helps the manufacturer reduce waste and prevents recalls later on down the chain.

Another key way RFID supports traceability is by monitoring product and ingredient temperatures without the need for returnable tracking devices. Intelligent tags with built-in sensors allow users to ensure a pallet maintains a certain temperature throughout its lifecycle. If the audit trail shows that the pallet has reached a temperature above or below a certain threshold, the manufacturer can discard the product or adjust the expiration date. Similarly, RFID tags now exist that can monitor humidity, pressure and event movement, collecting even more data to promote food safety.

Although RFID has picked up steam, it is important to note that it will not replace its predecessor—barcodes—anytime soon. The main benefit of RFID over barcodes is that it allows manufacturers with large batches of product using high volumes of raw materials to simultaneously read and collect data from multiple pallets or containers. In the end, whether you use an RFID or barcode system, or even a combination of the two, depends on the use case.  

Looking forward, RFID will continue to grow within the cold foods industry. The combination of increased industry standards, greater system reliability and lower costs make today an opportune time to invest in RFID technology.