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RFID research suggests new shipping methods for produce

It’s always been believed that the biggest role for RFID technology could be within the food supply chain and delivering fresher foods to consumers.

That theory gained some traction this week when a University of Florida-led research team revealed research from an RFID pilot that could change the way companies ship fresh fruits and vegetables. The research was funded by a $155,000 grant from the Wal-Mart Foundation.

New RFID research could improve the produce supply chain and reduce billions worth of produce waste.

Researchers placed two RFID tags into each pallet of strawberries as they were picked from farms in Florida and California. The tags allowed researchers to track the temperature of the strawberries from the field, through pre-cooling and into trucks (which can hold 28 pallets), to distribution centers and then on to stores in Illinois, Washington, Alabama and South Carolina.

Jeffrey Brecht, director of the UF Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences Center for Food Distribution and Retailing, studied the strawberries beginning with their harvesting from fields.

He says that a general theory is that if retailers know the quality of the produce and the temperatures to which it has been exposed, they will know which produce to deliver first to stores. His group specifically researched the theory of “first in — first out,” known as FIFO in the food distribution industry. The researchers found that “first expired-first out,” or FEFO, is a better way to distribute delicate fruits and vegetables.

“If you improve the efficiency of postharvest handling, you reduce waste and losses and that improves sustainability,” says Brecht. “If you ship something to market that’s not going to end up being eaten by consumers, every single bit of input in growing it, harvesting, packing, cooling, shipping — everything is wasted.”

Under perfect conditions, strawberries can maintain a good quality for up to 14 days. Less than perfect conditions, mainly due to a lack of temperature control, drastically reduce post-harvest life. It can take as long as four days to go from field to store, especially for a cross-country trip, such as from California to South Carolina.

Colleagues from the University of South Florida, Georgia Tech and industry partners collaborated on the project. Brecht delivered a presentation this week on his findings at the International Horticultural Congress in Brisbane, Australia.

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