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Capitalizing on the Information Highway

Technology used with increasing frequency in packaging—sensors, 2D bar codes, radio-frequency identification, time/temperature indicators—could be deployed to better ensure food safety.

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But before this can happen, we need to address a crucial two-part question: What kind of data is going to be sent and how will we manipulate the data so that it becomes useful information upon which sound decisions can be made?

We need to get better at connecting the dots. You have people inventing the hardware, like time/temperature indicators for example, and then somewhere else you have people in a lab studying why food deteriorates. But the two are not connected. The people making the time/temperature indicators aren’t communicating with the people who study food. We have tools in place but we’re not putting them together in ways that are meaningful.

This will change. It’s not a question of if but when, how fast, and to what extent. It takes a champion to initiate this kind of change, and I’m not sure any champion is out there right now.

It seems to me the Internet highway is not yet being taken advantage of in the way that it might be. It’s such a powerful tool for getting data moved and shared and analyzed by multiple parties in ways that just weren’t possible not so long ago. Shouldn’t we be able to tap that potential when we want to know what happens to packaged food that has to travel from California to New Jersey?

Or look at what Walmart has done with RFID. Granted, their interest in it has not been centered on food safety issues, but rather on logistics, order fulfillment, and supply chain issues. But why shouldn’t we see a time in the near future when RFID tags on secondary packaging will play a huge role in transmitting data about temperature abuse, for example, a key contributor to microbial growth and, ultimately, food spoilage?

It helps to put all of this in perspective. For example, if five or ten years ago I told you that one day emails would be more plentiful than phone calls, you’d have laughed. But look at us now.

It also takes a combination of the right time, the right place, and the right people for change like this to occur. But I do believe that in the not too distant future, we’ll see a much better integration of sensing technologies, packaging, and the Internet, an integration that will enhance food safety to everyone’s benefit.

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