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Tracking Avian Flu and Mad Cow: Is RFID Bringing Safer Food to a Store Near You?

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With threats of Mad Cow and bird flu rattling our food chain, can Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) ensure a meal without epidemiological regrets? With rather a lot riding on these little transceivers, Laurie Rowell posits that it might be wise to take a good, hard look at this "tech du jour" that's supposed to save our supper.
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Outbreaks of animal-borne diseases like Mad Cow and avian flu are serious business. They can spread rapidly, causing the destruction of whole flocks or herds and threatening the food chain. Even when threats to humans are minimal, consumers shy away from purchasing the at-risk items. After all, nothing puts people off their food as quickly as the suggestion that the entrée might be tainted. That kind of news is a real plate-pusher.

In the hope of short-circuiting future epidemics, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) has come up with a plan for tracking all livestock. The hope is that a national registry would allow rapid identification of and notification about exposed animals so that a quick quarantine could save widespread trouble. One key technology in these tracking trials is Radio Frequency Identification (RFID).

So how well is RFID working for this purpose? And just how do you chip a chicken—without later having to spoon the RFID device out of your soup?

Just-in-Time Tech

The RFID tag—the part you attach to the bird or cow or any other item you mean to identify—is a transponder, a silicon chip that can be small enough to sit on the head of a pin. The antenna that it requires can be printed in special ink so that the whole thing is discreet enough to ignore on food packaging, library books, clothes, people, pets, or credit cards. What makes RFID tags so much better than the bar codes that they’re replacing is that RFID tags don’t require line-of-sight scanning; they just need to be close enough to be in range of an appropriate reading device. Pretty nifty if your range is a couple of meters and you want to be sure a shipment is complete without having to unload the truck to scan each bar code. That’s why several large companies, Wal-Mart and Target among them, insist that their suppliers ship with RFID tags.

RFID systems vary in function and design, but most applications use passive tags—that is, the tag itself has no internal battery. Identification using a typical RFID system of this type begins with a reading device that’s either embedded in a stationary object (say, the gate on a cattle pen) or handheld like a wand. An electromagnetic signal from the RFID reader activates any RFID tag within range, which in turn transmits its data to the reader. The reader decodes the data from the tag, sending it on to a computer running appropriate application software (middleware), which filters the data and passes it to enterprise applications.

Articles in InfoWorld, cite two key improvements in RFID technology within the past year. New software has made these systems more functional at the same time that the new Gen2 protocols for hardware, now the standard for Electronic Product Code (EPC) transmissions, have ensured wider interoperability. These new, better functioning Gen2 devices didn’t hit the market until 2005, so plenty of people were already implementing hardware using earlier protocols. This means that early adopters may have money invested in older technology.

In this atmosphere of change, the farm and ranching industry finds itself at sixes and sevens, scrambling to meet the demands of government-mandated animal tracking by 2009.

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