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Linking the Food Chain

Richard and June Ha

Hamakua Springs Country Farm's Richard and June Ha and their produce.

Macario

Just how fresh is that head of lettuce in the display case? Who knows.

However, in the near future, you may know exactly that and a whole lot more. If a recent Hawaii Department of Agriculture pilot project is successful, Island consumers will not only be able to tell when their locally grown fruits and vegetables were harvested but also where and how long and at what temperatures they were stored during their trip to the supermarket.

The $500,000 project, initiated last month, is testing out a technology called Radio Frequency Identification Device (RFID), a tracking system similar to the ones used by overnight delivery companies like FedEx and UPS. But instead of bar codes and hand scanners, RFID uses tiny computer chips and antennae, imbedded into stickers, which are applied to boxes of produce. Before leaving the farm, workers key in data, which indicates type of produce, where it was grown and when it was picked. When the box moves on to the distributor, a portal receives the tag’s elec-tronic signal and enters the day and time of the box’s arrival into a central database. The same process is repeated when the produce is delivered to the grocery store.

“Being able to trace food through the supply chain not only helps improve its safety, it also gives a lot of inventory control capabilities to the players: the farmers, distributors and the stores,” says John Ryan, administrator of the Hawaii Department of Agriculture Quality Assurance Division. “The technology allows us to be hands off, so you don’t have to get close and scan every box.”

The pilot project’s participants include Oahu’s Sugarland Farms, the Big Island’s Hamakua Springs Country Farms, Maui’s Kula Country Farms, food distributor Armstrong Produce and retailer Foodland. After three years, Ryan hopes to have produce from all 5,000 of Hawaii’s farms tagged. He’s also researching individual produce wrappers, which have RFIDs imbedded in them and cell phones that can read the tags — both available in Japan. So, someday in the near future, when you wonder how fresh a head of lettuce is, you can just flip open your phone and find the answer.

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Hawaii Business,March