USA: Biosensors to be Used for 'Homeland Security'

Publisher Name: 
Wired News

Still stinging from failed attempts to introduce radio
tags to consumers,
retailers and their suppliers are now adding features
to the technology
to
make it appear essential to the safety of the nation's
food supply.

As recently as last week, retailers and consumer
packaged-goods
companies
have had to quietly dump efforts to implant
radio-frequency
identification
technology into products or store shelves. The tiny
radio transmitters let the companies precisely track the numbers and
whereabouts of their inventory and consumers' purchasing preferences, which worries many privacy advocates.

But many companies are now combining the tags with sensors that can
detect the presence of biological and chemical agents, or signal that a
perishable item has expired. By doing so, they hope to gussy up
the controversial technology as an essential terrorism-fighting tool.

The multifunction RFID tags will track America's food
supply "from birth to the bun," said one RFID tag maker. With biosensors
attached to them, the tags can instantly alert suppliers and retailers to
anthrax or other toxins in their products, and possibly make recalls more
effective. In addition, the food companies hope the technology
will protect them from lawsuits brought by victims of deliberately
contaminated food.

"Antiterrorism designation from the Homeland Security
Department will
encourage the adoption of this technology by our
customers," said Paul
Cheek, CEO of Global Technology Resources, which has
developed a
supply-chain-auditing system incorporating RFID
biosensors.

If Homeland Security designates GTR's system, called
Safe Check, as an
antiterrorism technology, it will shield Cheek and his
customers from
lawsuits if the system fails to work as intended.

The Support Anti-Terrorism by Fostering Effective
Technologies
("Safety")
Act of 2002 authorizes the Homeland Security
Department to name as
"qualified antiterrorism technologies" any devices
designed to thwart
or
mitigate the effects of terrorism. Users of approved
devices will enjoy
blanket protections from liability lawsuits arising
from a terrorist
attack.

According to one technology industry lobbyist, the
Safety Act was a
"backroom deal" brokered by defense contractors, tort
reform lawyers
and
congressional leaders.

But the Safety Act has recently caught the attention
of the food
industry,
which is now funding the development of RFID
biosensors and pushing for
their coverage under the Safety Act.

Auburn University's Detection and Food Safety Center,
which is partly
funded
by food companies, is leading much of the research
into RFID
biosensors. AU
scientists are coating microscopic structures -- one a
cantilever less
than
100 microns long -- with bacteriophages, viruses that
bind with anthrax
and
other biological and chemical agents. When an agent
binds with the
phage
coating, the cantilever produces a signal for
transmission to a
handheld
RFID receiver.

AU assistant professor Barton Prorok, who is working
on the biosensors,
wants to combine the tiny sensor, a transducer and a
computer chip on a
stamp-size RFID tag, which can operate submerged
inside a milk bottle,
or in
the juice at the bottom of a meat package.

AU is in the early stages of its research, and a
bacteriophage-based
RFID
biosensor is likely many years away.

But several food companies have already begun testing
RFID biosensors.
Golden State Foods, one of McDonald's largest beef
patty providers and
its
leading sauce supplier, has been testing GTR's
technology for 14
months.
Golden State Foods did not respond to a request for an
interview.
Another company later this year will begin tagging
supply containers
for a
retail grocery chain. FreshAlert, from RFID chipmaker
Infratab,
combines
RFID tags with temperature sensors and timers, to
signal when
perishables
have become unsafe to eat. Infratab is also
negotiating with a brewery
and a
sausage maker, which are interested in investing in
its technology.

The food companies, which say they want to use RFID to
make their
supply
chains more efficient, refused to discuss any food
safety and security
applications for RFID biosensors.

They may be touchy about their industry's history of
poor record
keeping and
inept recalls. Less than 30 percent of recalled meats
and poultry are
ever
recovered, according to estimates from food safety
experts and the U.S.
Department of Agriculture. "They don't want to remind
people of that
(NBC
News) Dateline episode, either," said the CEO of one
RFID tag
manufacturing
company.
Dateline last year discovered that retail grocers
nationwide were
endangering their customers' health by changing the
expiration dates on
perishable items.

Infratab, GTR and other RFID biosensor companies will
begin applying
for
Homeland Security antiterrorism technology designation
as early as next
month. But critics of the technology question whether
the tags will
ever be
an effective tool for recalling contaminated goods.

"The retailers used the same argument -- faster
recalls -- as a
justification for customer loyalty cards," said Liz
McIntyre, a
spokeswoman
for the anti-RFID privacy group CASPIAN. "But we know
of no product
recalls
that have ever been made with customer loyalty cards."

To make recalls based on information from RFID
biosensors, food
retailers
will have to record the personal data of every
shopper, said McIntyre,
something consumers may not welcome.

"Consumers will just have to ask themselves if it's
worth it to
sacrifice
their privacy for this technology, because it's
something the industry
wants."

AMP Section Name:Food and Agriculture