RFID Technology in Food Processing

Radio frequency identification (RFID) transmits product information using radio waves. The agri-food industry is beginning to use this technology to enhance food quality, safety and traceability.

On this page you can learn about how RFID works, and the benefits and challenges of using this technology. You will also find related links.

How RFID works

RFID technology helps manage information on food materials (for example, product identity, supplier or serial number) as they enter and move through the farm-to-fork distribution chain.

A system consists of three main components:

  • Computer system
    • Receives the information from the reader
    • Stores and/or interprets data
  • Reader
    • Transmits and receives radio frequencies
    • Broadcasts radio signals which activate the tag to retrieve and/or update information
    • Includes portable hand-held instruments or stationary devices positioned in strategic locations (ex: loading bay doors)
  • Tags
    • Transmit data on the tag's microchip by a radio antenna
    • May be read multiple times
    • Have read-only or read-write capabilities:
      • Read-only - tag information (ex: serial number) cannot be changed
      • Read-write - tag information may be altered or updated
    • Classified according to power source as active (battery powered) or passive (no battery):
      • Active tags are outfitted with a battery to power the internal circuitry and radio antenna. They have a transmission range up to 100 metres and may contain sensors that monitor and record various conditions (ex: temperature). Active tags are limited by their battery life and are usually larger and more expensive than passive tags.
      • Passive tags are powered by a reader's incoming radio frequencies which generate an electronic current to power the circuit and transmit a response. They usually do not contain sensors and have a limited transmission range of three metres or less. Passive tags are more common because they are cheaper and usually last longer than active tags.

RFID benefits

Superior information handling
RFID tags are becoming the next generation of barcodes.

  • Unlike traditional barcodes, which require a direct line-of-sight for individual laser scanning, multiple RFID tags are read simultaneously when they pass within range of a reader.
  • Barcodes only provide generic information, such as product class, while RFID tags uniquely label every pallet, box, or individual item.

Enhanced recall and traceability
Recent high-profile food security issues make rapid, effective recall and traceability systems necessary.

  • RFID-generated records and databases allow producers to quickly identify and locate suspect products in supply and distribution chains.
  • RFID systems/networks improve compliance with various directives including Good Manufacturing Practices, Can-Trace and the Canadian Food Recall System.

Improved supply and distribution chain management
RFID is an enabling technology that improves supply and distribution chain management.

  • Tag sensors monitor various environmental parameters (ex: temperature and relative humidity) during product transportation and storage. This critical data verifies that products have not been exposed to conditions that compromise quality and safety.
  • Tag readings at the shipping and receiving points serve as a confirmation procedure that can minimize discrepancies and costly errors.
  • Ongoing scanning of tagged warehoused goods provides real-time inventory data. This information improves first-in, first-out (FIFO) policies and shortens replenishment cycles.

RFID challenges

High startup costs
The initial costs for RFID computer software, reader(s) and tags are high and may be difficult for some companies to absorb.

  • RFID commercial implementation is expensive, but the costs have been steadily decreasing and disposable passive tags are currently priced between US $0.07 to US $0.30 per tag.

Training designated employee(s)
The time and money to train employees to implement and use RFID systems can be expensive. RFID vendors should provide custom training and information to help integrate this technology into their customers' business operations.

Developing the RFID network
An effective RFID network requires supply chain partners to have compatible software and information systems to access, share and update data.

  • The Electronic Product Code (EPC) is a globally managed RFID numbering system that identifies products much like a barcode.
  • EPCs are unique identification numbers that match online databases for retrieval or modification of specific product information.

Emerging privacy issues
The data sharing requirements of this technology and even the possibly of unauthorized tag readings have caused concern over the loss or compromise of proprietary information.

  • Network designs ensure that only specific information is made available.
  • Tag information can be password protected or encrypted to prevent tampering.

Accuracy of tag reading
RFID radio waves may be disrupted by environmental factors such as rotating electrical machinery, metal and moisture.

  • Some RFID vendors can evaluate system performance and provide necessary recalibration to improve tag reading rates.
  • Using different tags, especially battery powered active tags more suited for radio-challenged environments, improves tag reading accuracy.
For more information email the Food Safety and Inspection Branch or call 204-795-8418 in Winnipeg.