Dole invests in RFID to track produce from the field

Dole Fresh Vegetable launched a produce quality pilot program in March 2006 to see if radio-frequency identification (RFID) tags could improve the quality of leafy green products in the supply chain.

Less than six months later, Dole was hit with reports of a spinach outbreak involving Dole-branded products. Lessons learned in the quality pilot program are now being implemented to provide better traceability and food safety information for the fruit and vegetable company.

The RFID tag system is the next step in Dole’s traceability program, increasing the accuracy and decreasing the time to find the field that sourced contaminated produce. The company is not going to compete on food safety, said Eric Schwartz, president of Salinas-based Dole Fresh Vegetables. The company opened up a Soledad, Calif., field operation and processing facility in early May to members of the media to increase the visibility and transparency of the industry’s food safety programs.

How It Works

Dole is in the process of bringing all of its processing in-house, another move that was in the works before the E. coli O157:H7 outbreak last year, said Eric Schwartz, president of Dole Fresh Vegetables. Spinach will be brought in house by the end of 2007, and the company’s spring mix salads will be brought in early next year.

The new system, which will be rolled out at each of Dole’s four processing facilities and its hundreds of suppliers by early 2008, integrates GPS, RFID and cell phone technologies to track bins of leafy greens. When workers in the fields fill a bin, an RFID tag is applied and scanned with a hand scanner that works on cell phone frequency. The technology had to be able to communicate with the entire network, so suppliers’ fields had to have a cell phone signal.

The bins leave the fields on trucks for the processing facilities where the produce enters cooling tubes. Automatic scanners read the RFID tag on the bin, and if the set parameters aren’t met the workers won’t be able to put the produce into the system. If, for example, a truck broke down between harvesting and cooling, when the scanners see that the bin sat for longer than was allowed, a message will pop up on the dock’s computer monitor that reads: “cannot accept into production.”

The same process is followed throughout production, so if a bin is caught in a backup anywhere in the system, it won’t be processed if it goes outside the company’s set parameters.

When used in conjunction with raw material testing, the GPS-enabled RFID tags give Dole a precise location where the produce was harvested – not just a field, but a 30-foot area in a field. The closest a hold program by itself can get is 1 acre to 100 acres, depending on the lot size. So, if a batch tests positive for contamination, the company can go back and investigate where the problem occurred with certainty.


Dole’s pilot program was expensive – a couple million dollars, Schwartz said. And it will be several million more to put the system in each plant. The cost is not a one-time cost, either. The one-time-use tags go for 30 to 35 cents each, and there are about 2,000 bins moving through production every day.

Schwartz said there would be a slight cost saving with the system, but the real reason for implementing it was the additional traceability and a higher-quality end product that consumers would see on store shelves.

“It really was the quality control,” he said. “We needed a better way to know where the bins were sitting.”

There is some benefit to streamlining the process, and the RFID system has helped identify where backups were occurring in the process. Schwartz said the processing facilities had been working on a “hurry up and wait” mentality, but now that the location of harvested bins is known the plant can organize its workforce more efficiently.

“It’s much easier to balance the harvest tubes with the cooling tubes now,” he said.

When all of Dole’s plants and fields go online, the company will be leading the curve in the next step of traceability. Recordkeeping and traceability is required under HACCP, Good Manufacturing Practices and regional matrixes like the California Leafy Green Marketing Agreement, but more research is needed to find the cause and method of action of E. coli O157:H7 and other human pathogens.

“Traceability is not a cure, but it’s what you need to find the source,” Schwartz said.

That’s where he thinks government should step in to guide the industry. Not regulating procedures, but focusing on what it does best: inspecting, verifying and providing research dollars.

“That’s what we need them to continue to do,” Schwartz said. “More regulation is not going to fix the problem.”

The industry can play a role in developing food safety practices, because processors are dealing with it every day, Schwartz said. They can help with research too, such as the creation of the Center for Produce Safety at the University of California, Davis in April. The Produce Marketing Association gave $2 million of the initial $4.65 million to start the center – money that came from the produce industry. Industry leaders have stepped in to help as well, with Taylor Farms supplying $2 million to the center and Fresh Express awarding up to $2 million in research grants for studies on E. coli O157:H7.

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