Pilot project will be tracking produce 'from farm to fork'
The goal is to prevent contaminants in food from reaching stores
Reports of E. coli contamination of produce and contamination of pet food have prompted the Hawaii Department of Agriculture to come up with a way to show residents where their food is coming from.
The department will begin a three-year pilot project to use technology to track produce from farms to supermarkets. Officials will use radio frequency identification devices to trace produce.
The project is slated to start next month when officials will conduct mock recalls with a controlled amount of tomatoes. State officials hope the project will develop into a tracking system that could expand to include all 5,000 farms in the state.
State officials want to track produce from farms to consumers as a way to quell public fears about food safety.
The Department of Agriculture is spearheading a three-year pilot project using radio frequency identification devices that can read encoded bits of information with more data than conventional bar codes. "What's unique about this project is looking at it from farm to fork on a broad level throughout the state," said Sandra Kunimoto, chairwoman of the state Board of Agriculture.
The project is the first of its kind in Hawaii, said John Ryan, who is heading the project as administrator of the Department of Agriculture's Quality Assurance Division.
Officials hope to develop a tracking system later to ensure food safety and to prevent illness or death. State agricultural officials also hope the system can be expanded to include all 5,000 farms in the state.
Consumers have become concerned about the origin and distribution of food after recent incidents such as the recall of contaminated pet food that caused the deaths of at least 14 animals, and an E. coli outbreak in spinach that resulted in more than 200 illnesses and three deaths.
COURTESY TO THE STAR-BULLETIN
Radio frequency identification devices, similar to one shown enlarged here, will be used in a state pilot project to track farm produce. CLICK FOR LARGE
About 60 people attended a presentation on the proposed tracking system yesterday at the Plant Quarantine Branch near Sand Island.
In the pilot project, each box of produce will be pre-tagged with a paper-thin transmitter embedded in weatherproof labels. According to agricultural officials, the product's identity, time and location of the radio frequency identification device will be automatically entered into a computer. Farmers may also use the system to log when the crop was planted and harvested and what pesticides were used, officials said in a news release.
When the product's identification number is entered into an online database, a reading device can be used to check the source of the product. It can also track temperature and humidity information, agricultural officials say.
Sugarland Farms, Armstrong Produce and Foodland stores will take part in the project as officials analyze the efficiency of removing produce in mock recalls.
The pilot project, estimated to cost $1.6 million, will be divided into two phases.
The first phase will start next month and end in August. Officials will analyze the tracking process as they use a controlled amount of tomatoes from Sugarland that will be placed in pre-tagged boxes and sent to Armstrong Produce. From there the boxes will be sent to a couple of Foodland supermarkets.
In the mock recall, officials will randomly select tags and look into their computer data to determine the location of the boxes.
Officials have set a goal to remove the "pretend-contaminated" containers from the supply chain in less than an hour, Ryan said.
In the second phase, slated to start in April of next year, officials plan to have the tracking system running smoothly. They will expand the project to include farms, such as Nalo Farms and Hamakua Mushrooms, Ryan said.
Officials will continue to look for more funding once the project is completed and will determine implementation costs for farms and distributors for the tracking program.
The state received a $450,000 grant yesterday from the Economic Development Alliance of Hawaii to go toward the pilot project. State officials had submitted grant proposals to the Department of Homeland Security and the Federal State Marketing Improvement Program.
Weyerhaeuser will provide pre-tagged boxes for the pilot project. BEA Systems Inc., Symbol (formerly Motorola Inc.) and Lowry Computer Products Inc. will donate software for the project.