How RFID technology is transforming the fresh produce supply chain

Santa Clara, CA, US:  The slightest change in temperature affects the shelf life of produce and reduce its saleability. Efficient temperature monitoring and management throughout the supply chain is no longer a seen as an option, but a necessity, says Peter Mehring, chief executive, Intelleflex.

“The monetary value of fruit and vegetables lost during the cold chain is staggering. This is exacerbated with the added pressures that are put on produce logistics management by severe world food shortages,” he says.

“Produce companies need innovative new solutions to decrease wastage and effectively manage and track pallets of perishable goods and many are turning to RFID-based wireless (Radio Frequency Identification) condition monitoring tags.”

While many shippers of perishable goods may monitor the products at a trailer-level, this has proven to be inadequate as temperatures vary pallet-by-pallet, even inside a refrigerated trailer.

The time and temperature from harvest-to-cool are common variables that need to be monitored on an individual pallet basis because temperature, and time spent at that temperature, affects each pallet in a different way.

“Typical quality control means a visual inspection process. This is not adequate as “invisible” shelf life loss, which occurred earlier in the supply chain due to improper temperature controls, cannot be seen or identified,” Mehring says.

“To put it simply, a wasted produce isn’t always visible to the naked eye until just before it begins to spoil – well after it is too late to do anything about it.

“Traditionally, warehouses have operated on a “first in, first out” (FIFO) model of distribution. But, because relative shelf life varies by pallet, this method is not effective as often the last pallet in needs to go out first in order to be delivered fresh.

RFID pallet-level monitoring enables the shipping process to implement a “first expiry, first out” (FEFO) method based on the experienced temperature of the pallet which is the most accurate indication of the condition of the produce and the time remaining before it has spoiled. By implementing pallet-level temperature monitoring and FEFO inventory management, produce revenues can be improved by maximising the available shelf life based on the dynamic state of the produce, he says.

“What’s important for maximising the delivered value of the produce is knowing the relative current remaining shelf life from the field to the retailer. This actionable data is what drives effective real-time decision-making, prioritised routing, waste reduction and quality improvement.

“Simply put, products with a higher relative shelf life index can be shipped further distances while products with a lower relative shelf life index need to get to market as quickly as possible.

“At each point along the way, there’s potential for trouble. Produce could be left in a field, sit in the sun on a loading dock or be stored in a truck with broken or uneven refrigeration. Each step also creates the opportunity to break the chain of responsibility.

“Without pallet-level temperature monitoring and logging, the warehouse can claim the produce was fine when it left, for example, leaving the distributor wondering about the quality and remaining shelf life. Ultimately, the retail grocer is left making a determination on the quality and can accept or reject a shipment – or re-estimate its value – with limited or inaccurate information.

“Without being able to effectively track the products throughout the cold chain, it is difficult to determine the exact cause for any given incident where loss of produce occurs. In many cases, assigning responsibility becomes a guessing game without good data to justify the claim. The cause of wastage can occur at many stages in the supply chain, remaining invisible until after the product is sold to the unlucky retailer, or worse, to an unsuspecting consumer.

“RFID technology developments now provide in-transit temperature data monitoring every step of the way. Without unpacking or modifying the process, the shipping and storage history is instantly obtainable for every produce container. With RFID tagging, you can quickly calculate a relative remaining shelf life index, route product based on that index, optimise inventory management, improve product quality for your customers and increase your revenues.

” While the ‘last-mile’ of a supply chain is the most important link between an organisation and the receiver. Many organisations extend their supply chain to retailers, but do not focus on effective last-mile deliveries. But with the last-mile getting more attention today, organisations are identifying inefficiencies in this area and trying to address them.

Further development and recent advances in RFID tracking technology provides the capability to proactively take action before the goods reach a critical condition. If the temperature starts to drift, in-transit data will be sent out, providing the opportunity to do something before it’s too late.

“The RFID tags can be placed inside the container to provide an accurate record of the product’s temperature and delivered within the package directly to the receiver. The driver, equipped with the RFID reader, can measure the temperature and provide a delivery certification receipt that the receiver can use for firsthand verification when the product is delivered; an effective way to conquer the infamous last mile.” Mehring says

Unlike the food and produce industry, the capability of being able to monitor and track assets is not a new thing, however despite the use of existing temperature monitoring solutions, still up to one third of all temperature sensitive products are compromised and will need to be returned or destroyed. “With a growing population and increasing demands on the cold supply chain, it is the latest developments in RFID monitoring that have brought a fresh outlook into the way in which produce can be tracked and monitored for quality and delivered freshness; with successful outcomes allowing product differentiation and value-based pricing, leading to product consistency, quality, sales and brand value,” he says.