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Not so fast with the high tech, Big Brother

April 1, 2004
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Joyce Fassl
I AM ALL IN FAVOR OF THE NEW technologies that will make our food safer and our industry a robust environment for all manufacturers and suppliers. But over the past few months, I have started to wonder where some of the latest high tech ideas will lead.

RFID sounds great, that is if you can afford it. Tracking and tracing food, ingredients, packages and pallets up and down the supply chain will certainly keep our food fresher and safer. Taking new technology one step further to areas such as the smart shelves some retailers are testing has made me a little skeptical about where all the Big Brother paraphernalia will lead us.

The inventory replenishment and safety aspect of high tech equipment is the positive thing we can gain from smart shelves and RFID technology. But think for a minute about those futuristic scenarios when a smart shelf detects Lime Doritos in your shopping cart and sends a signal announcing that you forgot the salsa and margarita salt. With the current American obesity problem, maybe you can even imagine a government public service announcement reminding you to serve healthy snacks at your weekend bash as you walk down the produce aisle with your Chunky Monkey.

We've all heard about the other possible invasions of our privacy such as signals that could call your cell phone as you are nearing the Safeway suggesting you may need some Oreos.

Eliminating theft or tampering is another great use of technology. Some packaging suppliers provide meat purge pads that double as anti-theft devices (see story on page 20). But supermarkets must have deactivation equipment at the check out and detectors at the exits to make the system work. Today about 26 percent of grocery stores have installed electronic surveillance devices, according to a report from the Food Marketing Institute (FMI).

I was aware of retail theft rings specializing in infant formula, but I guess I have never given much thought to stealing a filet mignon. FMI research says that the average store loses close to $95,000 per year in the meat department through shrinkage. The report also says that the most coveted retail item for shoplifters is Advil. But when it comes to food theft, meat takes the cake.

Unfortunately, human nature, and not food safety or supply chain initiatives, may accelerate the implementation of tracking and surveillance devices. I just hope we are not heading down the wrong path in terms of privacy issues.

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