How Technology Could Solve The Mystery Of The Tainted Tomatoes - InformationWeek

InformationWeek is part of the Informa Tech Division of Informa PLC

This site is operated by a business or businesses owned by Informa PLC and all copyright resides with them.Informa PLC's registered office is 5 Howick Place, London SW1P 1WG. Registered in England and Wales. Number 8860726.

IoT
IoT
Software // Information Management
Commentary
6/12/2008
12:39 PM
50%
50%

How Technology Could Solve The Mystery Of The Tainted Tomatoes

It's been seven weeks since people started getting sick from tomatoes and the FDA still doesn't know who is producing them. The tomato industry has lost tens of millions of dollars, and my craving for a thickly sliced tomato sandwich on sprouted wheat with mayo and Swiss goes unsatisfied. Too bad there's an unused technology, called RFID, that may have tracked those tainted tomatoes back to the grower by now.

It's been seven weeks since people started getting sick from tomatoes and the FDA still doesn't know who is producing them. The tomato industry has lost tens of millions of dollars, and my craving for a thickly sliced tomato sandwich on sprouted wheat with mayo and Swiss goes unsatisfied. Too bad there's an unused technology, called RFID, that may have tracked those tainted tomatoes back to the grower by now.I keep seeing this excuse -- "but you can't put a bar code on a tomato like you can a bag of spinach" -- and, of course, you can't put an RFID (radio frequency identification) tag on a tomato, either. But modern-day track-and-trace technologies could help out here, if only there were some incentive to figure out how.

RFID has an advantage over bar codes because no sight line is required to pick up the identifying information on a tag; it's picked up from a wireless reader as it's passed over an area. That's a great labor saver. RFID tags are perhaps 20 cents now. They could be limited to large containers in the tomato supply chain to keep costs down.

I'm no tomato supply chain expert, but I understand it's typically a three-tiered system: grower, distributor, retailer/restaurateur. So what about something like this: Tomato growers affix each delivery truck with a tag, and as trucks approach loading docks at distributors, affixed with wireless RFID readers, information on where that batch is coming from is correlated between the truck and a tag on the bin into which the tomatoes are delivered. I'm guessing the tomatoes are then probably put into smaller batches, perhaps pallets, which could carry some sort of identifying information that links them with a specific bin, which is entered into a distributor's supply chain system before it's shipped off to a destination.

I'm just brainstorming here, and I'm quite sure oversimplifying things and missing some steps along the way, but I bet if a bunch of smart IT people and supply chain experts who really knew their stuff spent some time on this, they could come up with a solid solution and even get some pilot tests going.

The point is that we've got the technologies available to know where our bulk food comes from, but apparently not enough incentive to figure out how to implement tech in a way that makes sense and gets buy-in from the supply chain. One problem with my above scenario is it puts a lot of the onus on the distributor; is there a way the responsibility could be spread across the supply chain?

Many in the industry aren't thinking about technology and food safety, though, because it always comes down to cost, time, and willingness of various parts of the supply chain to participate. But how many times does the $1.4 billion tomato industry have to suffer through another tainted tomato scandal, while losing millions of dollars a day? (The tomato scare of 2008 marks the 13th such incident since 1990.) How many hundreds more people need to get sick? What's it going to take to get the FDA more interested in helping growers solve this problem with modern technology?

RFID isn't necessarily just an expensive precaution; there's a tomato processor in California that's gleaning a lot of important information from RFID, letting it replenish store shelves more quickly. There's also cheaper, nonsilicon tags becoming available from smart startups, such as PolyIC, which puts RFID on polymer film.

In reality, what we should all be doing, particularly in the warm months, is buying produce from our local farmers' markets, or even produce that's labeled state-grown at our supermarkets, rather than buying produce grown 2,000 miles away ... even if it means purchasing primarily the fruits and veggies locally in season and keeping the tomato buying until late summer, when they harvest in most states. (And with supply chain gas prices jacking up food prices, that's becoming a more economically feasible option, anyway.)

But the fact is our nation now has a very large, global food supply chain, one that should be supported with modern technology. I know it wouldn't be an easy puzzle to figure out. But if there's a will, there's a way.

We welcome your comments on this topic on our social media channels, or [contact us directly] with questions about the site.
Comment  | 
Print  | 
More Insights
Slideshows
10 Ways to Transition Traditional IT Talent to Cloud Talent
Lisa Morgan, Freelance Writer,  11/23/2020
News
Top 10 Data and Analytics Trends for 2021
Jessica Davis, Senior Editor, Enterprise Apps,  11/13/2020
Commentary
Can Low Code Measure Up to Tomorrow's Programming Demands?
Joao-Pierre S. Ruth, Senior Writer,  11/16/2020
White Papers
Register for InformationWeek Newsletters
Video
Current Issue
Why Chatbots Are So Popular Right Now
In this IT Trend Report, you will learn more about why chatbots are gaining traction within businesses, particularly while a pandemic is impacting the world.
Slideshows
Flash Poll