Thursday, September 21, 2006

RFID – A Better Way to Track the Source of the E. Coli Outbreak

RFID Law Journal
Newsletter No. 14
September 21, 2006

Today’s headline is admittedly a misnomer of sorts. No publicly available source suggests RFID played any role in tracking down the notorious patch of spinach. We believe that auto identification technologies, including RFID, could’ve and should’ve played a role, resulting in faster answers to the 5Ws.

General news stories indicate that health officials are now focusing their E. Coli investigation on 9 farms located in California. While it's a relief (to spinach lovers) that health officals are narrowing their search, let's not lose sight of the fact that people actually started getting sick more than a month ago (on or about August 19th through September 5th). At this point, health offical are just identifying “9 farms” in California which may be responsible for the outbreak. Not exactly light speed, Hans Solo. Indeed, as this news story has developed over the past few weeks (and the FDA iterates toward the source of the outbreak), the best advice has been “don’t eat any raw spinach.” This is hardly optimal advice for American spinach growers, wholesalers and distributors, grocery stores or end-consumers. Indeed, for some of these stakeholders, such advice is an utter disaster.

Not to diminish the seriousness of the few actual cases of illnesses and death arising from the “bad” spinach, what would’ve happened had our federal government been dealing with a far more popular food or drug item or with a highly contagious strain of bacteria, virus, etc.?

It’s about time that policy makers deliver on the promise of bringing us into the 21st century. A number of auto identification tools, including RFID, could be ubiquitously deployed within the food and drug supply chains, and in doing so, facilitate better health and safety practices within those supply chains. Tangible safety improvements are within our grasp, and yet, with few exceptions (e.g., the Department of Defense), our federal government is taking a laissez-faire approach to deploying currently available technologies. When will the USDA put some Moo into its National Animal Identification System? When will drug pedigree become a reality? When will our policy makers take effective action to support such A.I.T. deployments?

While our government is literally throwing billions of dollars at aviation safety (by hiring thousands of TSA screeners) and homeland security, our policymakers are essentially saying that the safety and security of our nation’s food and drug supply chain does not present any “national security” issue. This is a curious position, especially in light of the current Administration’s hysteria (during the fall of 2005) over the possible impact of an Avian Flu epidemic.
Absent industry wide standards which require improved tracking of food and drugs within the supply chain, individual manufacturers and distributors of these goods are not showing a general inclination (with “open wallets”) of making the significant investments required for their deployments. This is the consensus viewpoint, despite significant enthusiasm shown by major retailers (e.g., Wal-Mart) about the various applications of RFID (e.g., the commonly cited studies of 20-30% improvement in out-of-stocks), because of who typically bears the upfront deployment costs.

Unless policy makers step into this situation and add some regulatory “teeth” (such as mandated pedigree deploying RFID or other enabling technologies), it’s not very likely that any individual U.S. drug or food supplier or wholesale distributor will “volunteer” to deploy an automated RFID system until such time as its deployment becomes a precondition to the maintenance of its significant business relationships. Indeed, a private business must justify its decisions primarily upon ROI. It is frequently a rationale decision for a business to adopt new technologies at a later point on the adoption cycle. Do we really want those responsible for our health and safety using the same calculus as those operating in a laissez-faire marketplace given the sizeable, post 9/11 challenges our nation faces?

© 2006 – RFID Law Journal, LLC.
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