RFID offers chance to track goods

DAVID CANTON - For the London Free Press - May 7, 2005 Read this on Canoe

RFID (radio frequency identification) tags have been getting a lot of attention lately from those who fear using them to track goods could pose privacy problems.

An example of a use that should pose little privacy concern is for food traceability.

Think of the advantage of being able to trace where an animal or some produce has been in its lifetime. Given the mad cow disease scares of the last couple of years, this may be an attractive solution.

The Canadian Food Inspection Agency, along with the federal and provincial governments, developed a program to identify industry requirements for a national whole-chain food traceability standard. This initiative was given the name of Can-Trace. The program would require the ability to trace the origin and location of any food item in the supply chain.

In other words, the initiative would provide a means to tell the origin and track food items from the farm to store shelves. That capability has the potential to save time and money -- and reduce waste when problems arise.

Advocates believe the technology would help with public health and safety, promote risk mitigation and lower insurance costs and supply chain inefficiencies.

It would not be a surprise if food traceability becomes law -- and given the amount of food that crosses borders, international standards might be expected.

RFID is one of the technologies that can be used to identify food. The ultimate technology may be things such as biometrics and DNA tracking, but those technologies are not ready for use today on the required scale -- or at an acceptable cost.

RFID tags are tiny microchips that automatically transmit information to a scanner, such as a product's name, its place of origin and the name of the manufacturer. For example, each farm animal would be given a tag at birth to identify it.

RFID technology combined with databases would offer real-time tracking of items through the supply chain.

Current RFID applications include gas pump passes, which allow users to pay for their gas without using cash or credit cards, the Highway 407 toll road that bills users with RFID transponders, and building access control.

The Can-Trace standard would require each participant within the food supply chain to be responsible for maintaining records about the products they receive and where they were shipped to.

At each step, information needs to be collected and shared between suppliers and their buyers to effectively track a product from its point of origin to its point of sale.

While bar codes have historically been the primary means of tracking items, RFID systems are being viewed by many businesses as the preferred technology for keeping a tab on products.

Livestock are often branded with bar codes, but the symbols can sometimes become difficult to read.

RFID offers a reasonable alternative to bar codes, as they can be scanned in harsh environments and through a variety of substances, such as snow, fog, ice or paint.

While there are benefits to the use of RFID, there are also concerns the technology could be deployed in ways that threaten our privacy and civil liberties. In theory, the information contained on an individual tag could be used to determine a great deal about consumer habits.

However, the benefits that can be derived from this food traceability standard should outweigh those concerns. It could enable us to more closely monitor and improve the safety and quality of the foods we consume.