California Startup Leverages RFID Technology to Keep Food Fresh
March 7, 2014 | Trish Popovitch
In a world filled with contaminated food outbreaks, low-quality fresh produce at the grocery stores and an emerging class of sustainable producers, the time to improve fresh food logistics is now upon us.
That’s why innovative and award-winning minds at Infratab Inc., incorporated in 2002 and headquartered in Oxnard, California, have spent years researching how to keep food fresh from field to consumer. The company offers small farmers, produce truck fleet owners and farmers’ markets Freshtime, a perishable food monitoring system at an affordable price.
Founder of a computer software company she later sold to Norton and recipient of the Los Angeles Entrepreneur of the Year Award, Terry Myers, CEO of Infratab Inc., has decades of technology research under her belt. Myers speaks passionately and confidently about the possibilities the Freshtime RFID (radio frequency identification)-based system offers for sustainable agriculture.
“Our tags can monitor any of three things: the temperature and freshness of a product, the temperature of the space the product is in, be it the greenhouse or the field, and the performance of a trip or a journey,” says Myers. “Just take them and start to gather data. Don’t worry about anything else until you get to understand where the freshness is going.”
The main challenges to keeping perishable goods fresh relate to harvest time, storage, transportation and shelf life. By having a greater understanding of these logistics and their impact on quality, a farmer can maximize outputs, increase efficiency and smooth the kinks of the perishable goods supply chain.
Infratab’s technology focuses on the quality of the fresh product.
“The quality date is the number of customers that a brand is willing to disappoint; if you’re a good brand it’s earlier than the expiration date, but if you’re a bad brand it’s the same date,” says Myers. “If you really want somebody to come back and buy your product then you will be concerned with your quality date and you’ll be concerned with how many days that person has to use that product.”
For anyone without a solid foundation in electronic engineering and technology, the intricacies of the Freshtime system can seem daunting at first. In laypersons terms, the system consists of three main components: tags, software and points.
Reusable Freshtime tags are patented battery-operated sensors that measure temperature, recording fluctuations at any point in the life of fresh food. Infratab customers can collect information for up to four hours on one tag, and can purchase as many tags (at a cost of $12 per tag) as needed to map out the environmental changes that affect the quality of their product. Utilizing cloud analytics and tag readers, Freshtime software processes the data collected on the tags.
Every Freshtime user can determine a point value for each part of their process. The fresh item is assigned 100 points at the beginning of the process, losing points as it moves from harvesting to transportation to storage.
“Perishable life starts at 100 and goes to zero. Zero is not the expiration date, zero is the quality date,” says Myers. The amount of points remaining when the item arrives on the supermarket shelf determines the amount of time remaining for the product to stay fresh.
According to Infratab’s research, the amount of time a harvested grape spends out in the sun before being loaded onto the truck affects its shelf life considerably; there can be as much as a 25-point difference between grapes picked four hours and those picked an hour before loading.
The points are further broken down into five color bands to help simplify the data.
“It turns things that you’re wondering about into things that you can start to see,” says Myers. “You begin to see patterns, you get to distinguish good growers from bad growers and you begin to have expectations. It’s a tool that you use every time you are wondering about something.”
In just a few short weeks, the Freshtime system will no longer require a tag reader. The tags will be readable through the use of a smart phone, reducing the cost of the product line and making it accessible to more people around the globe. Infratab also offers consulting and training to its Freshtime product users, helping them determine what aspects of their production they wish to monitor, for how long and for what end purpose.
“You really want this to be widespread. You really want this to have everybody to start to use this. This is about shared responsibility,” says Myers.