GETTING THE BUGS OUT

SALINAS, Calif. -- When it comes to traceability through the distribution chain, few food products pose as big a challenge as fresh produce.Now, as the traceability issue assumes a higher profile, produce is again showing its temperamental side. Case in point: A testing center dedicated to understanding the unique challenges in using radio frequency identification technology to capture data on fresh

SALINAS, Calif. -- When it comes to traceability through the distribution chain, few food products pose as big a challenge as fresh produce.

Now, as the traceability issue assumes a higher profile, produce is again showing its temperamental side. Case in point: A testing center dedicated to understanding the unique challenges in using radio frequency identification technology to capture data on fresh fruits and vegetables has opened here.

It seems the radio waves RFID technology uses to capture and transmit data on products may not mesh with the physical attributes of some produce items, or with the harsh environment in which many items are stored. That could spell trouble because RFID is rapidly emerging as the inventory management tool of the future, and could be the backbone of food traceability systems.

Since opening last fall, the testing center, housed in the packing facilities of NewStar Fresh Foods LLC, a grower-shipper here, has looked at many fruits and vegetables. Steve McShane, director of new product development and food safety for the company, said the tests have revealed many potential hurdles for RFID working with produce.

"The biggest problems relate to water and product density," he said. "The seeds in citrus can impede and deflect radio waves, and water, which is prevalent in many products in high concentrations, absorbs them. Some of the basic laws of physics can't be overcome."

One solution may lie in developing software that compensates for inaccurate readings, McShane said. Others may involve changing how produce is packaged, and how packages are arranged on pallets. The radio transponder tags that attach to packages also may have to be altered to work more effectively in a cold, wet environment.

Wal-Mart Stores, which is spearheading implementation of RFID across many product categories, is indirectly involved in funding the test center. Despite the challenges inherent in produce, McShane said Wal-Mart is pushing many of its produce suppliers to adopt RFID.