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RFID in foodservice and hospitality

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The potential for the adaption of radio frequency identification technology in foodservice will only be limited by the imagination, says Tim Smallwood FFCSI

Improving and developing the technology that can improve food safety, efficiency and now staff and guest safety in the foodservice and hospitality industry is challenging consultants and manufacturers alike. It’s not just the food, now guests and visitors in your premises have become part of the ‘traceability’ paradigm, and to achieve an effective outcome without sacrificing efficiency is the challenge and where radio frequency identification (RFID) technology can help.

RFID is a technology that uses radio waves to collect and transfer data. It has been traditionally been used in supply chain management, primarily for tracking goods at warehouses. In recent years, however, the technology has been introduced to the foodservice industry. RFID provides the real-time traceability, communication and location data which is valuable for the safe delivery of foodservices.

Unleashing the potential

To see the potential of RFID to advance the business of foodservice it is useful to know how the technology works and the different types being used and the barriers there might be to applying them in the future.

An RFID system is composed of three main parts: the transponder (or tag), the transponder reader and the software application.

The transponder reader uses radio frequency signals to capture data from the RFID tag including the tags identification, location and other encrypted information. This collected data is then sent through a local area network to a database on a server where it can be retrieved and used for the intended purpose.

RFID technology doesn’t require line-of-sight in order for the transponder to capture the information unlike a bar-code. It also allows for real-time data collection which can be immediately used which is valuable in emergencies and where food safety is a potential issue.

Types of RFID in foodservice

There a three main types of RFID tags and each serves a different purpose.

Passive tags: These are simple low cost tags without batteries so they can be printed on material and adhered to a surface. They can also be water, steam and temperature resistant. They require the use of high powered readers that send out low frequency radio signals to interrogate the tag and collect data. They are inexpensive because they don’t use a battery and can last for ever. Applications in the foodservice industry are generally inventory and asset tracking where once bar-codes would have been used.

Active: These tags which can be embedded into a protective covering constantly beacon out a signal to make connection with RFID readers. They can actively track real-time location and they have a longer read range than passive tags. Active tags use batteries so they cost more and require some maintenance and upkeep to stay functional. An application would be the tracking and temperature monitoring of meal delivery carts in healthcare and multi venue operations.

Intelligent: These are similar to active tags in that they use battery powered sensors and can be suitable for use on most surfaces including metal. The data is interpreted by an algorithm before being transmitted either to local receivers or to the cloud. These tags activate at determined intervals, scan their environment for reference points and send any new information since the last scan when necessary; saving energy and providing more precise data. A typical application in foodservice operations is real-time HACCP temperature monitoring and equipment control.

The future potential

The potential for the adaption of RFID technology in the foodservice industry will only be limited by the imagination. Although, the limitation may be that, while the technology has been in use for 20 years or more, the interoperability of the technology is still not standardised and within the foodservice industry there remain barriers between equipment manufacturers to the connection of their systems and equipment used in the kitchen with that of others for the overall benefit of the operator.

But the future is bright. With applications such as the ability for the continuous location tracking and the temperature of food (and other critical things, such as explosives) while in transit between locations sometimes 100s of kilometres apart. Other possible applications could include the traceability of your steak from the tag in the beast’s ear to the flag in your steak on the plate that can be interrogated by a smartphone for its provenance as well as its ‘doneness’.

And stories that illustrate other possibilities:

Sometimes a client or their staff may say that “they wish” something can be done to make a job easier. An example, unfortunately not yet achieved, a few years ago came from a foodservice assistant in a hospital meal plating room who said they “wished that they did not have to read the paper menu on the tray to see what the patient had ticked,” as it went passed them on the plating conveyor. They said “why can’t we have a screen in front of us that tells us what to put on the plate as its going past.”

Well of course that’s possible. It would have to be integrated into the patient menu system with the order loaded on to an active tag, which could be a tile with the bed number on it that is placed on the tray. The transponder reader, linked to the database, linked to the screen monitors above the conveyors would read the tray as it passes and show the item to be plated on the screen. Of course it would only be possible to effectively implement if the foodservice consultant is involved in the initial scoping brief of the overall patient management system; which all too often is not the case.

A similar application works in a hospital rehab ward where ambulant patients are able to choose their meal at a kiosk. The kiosk transponder reader interrogates the patient’s wrist band RFID tag that indicates any dietary conditions, such as diabetic or low salt to ensure the patient is only offered things they can tolerate.

Another concept that was presented at an Asian catering trade show a few years ago was for a cashless staff cafeteria. It involved passive RFID tags embedded into melamine plates (or bonded under) that would be linked to the particular menu item that was ordered by the customer so that a transponder reader located under the table would identify everything on the customers tray when they put it down and immediately charge the staff account with the required amount. Unfortunately, a great idea was then ahead of its time whereas now it could be used with Apple Pay and other systems to more effect and benefit.

The current Covid-19 pandemic will have accelerated the development of RFID-based technology to overcome the restrictions on contact and provide traceability. A payment and access control system currently being used in the events and entertainment industry creates a visitor’s virtual wallet when they make their booking online. The development of the existing technology now means that on entry, rather than using the touchscreen kiosk to confirm their registration they use the QR code from their smartphone to confirm their registration which is then linked to the wristband embedded with a unique RFID tag.

This links the data they have provided which is used for contactless entry and payment in the venue but can also be used to capture the number of visitors entering and leaving the venue when there is a maximum occupancy limit and in the event of a confirmed infection case of an attendee, provide authorities with contact details to assist with tracing the origin.

Just because it can’t be seen, it does not mean that useful information and data cannot be harvested to improve operations and systems that will take the foodservice industry into the next decades. Consultants will need to expand their thinking from the physical to include the digital to help their clients navigate the future.

Tim Smallwood FFCSI