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Industry Talk: Dr. George Staby

Researcher discusses study using RFID tags in transportation of cut flowers.

Floral retailers and wholesalers know the vase life of flowers can be drastically reduced if the cold chain isn’t maintained. But data loggers that track temperatures of floral shipments generate huge stacks of paper and data that few people have time to decipher.
A new product being tested, enhanced Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) tags, may offer an option for those concerned with the vase life left in their flowers. Super Floral Retailing writer Morgan Chilson recently talked with George Staby, Ph.D., president of the Perishables Research Organization in Pioneer, Calif., about his latest research with RFID tags. Here are excerpts from their discussion.

Q. What is an RFID tag?
The new generation of tags designed for the floral industry contain a computer chip, an antenna and a battery. The tags are the size and thickness of a CD cover and can be programmed to contain information currently encoded on bar codes, such as grower, product and transport information. These tags also can log temperature changes and in the future could be used to measure humidity and ethylene gas. They are placed inside flower boxes and can track what happens during the shipment. Readers scan the RFID tags to download the information.

Q. How is that information different from what florists get from data loggers?
The RFID tags we are working with calculate a vase life left for the flower shipment. With data loggers, you see all of this—you can print it out, you can see every hour, every 30 seconds, it’s taking a reading. But people aren’t using that information. With the RFID, you’ll translate it into percentage loss of vase life. We hope that that makes more of an impression on people in the industry.

Q. Tell us about your recent research project.
We worked with the Wholesale Florist & Florist Supplier Association (WF&FSA) and 11 wholesale florists to test the RFID tags. The wholesalers sent the tags to 48 domestic and offshore cut-flower growers, where they were placed on flower shipments, with a total of 78 tags being analyzed in our results.
Aside from procedural issues that were identified, such as challenges with activating the tags, we got the information below, keeping in mind that the first two points can be ascertained from data loggers but the remaining data is unique to these RFID tags.
• Average time flowers were in transit from growers to wholesalers was 4.7 days. The shortest time was 1.1 days for an air shipment, and the longest was 11.5 days for a sea container from Colombia.
• The average temperature the flowers were exposed to during transit was 50.4 F, while the lowest temperature recorded was 27.7 F and the highest was 95.2 F.
• The average vase life remaining when flowers were received at wholesale level was 10.7 days, or 86 percent. If the flowers in this test were put into a flower-food solution upon arrival and held at 68 F, they would last an average of 10.7 days.
• The shortest vase life was 7.3 days, with only 59 percent of vase life remaining. The longest vase life remaining was 11.9 days, which is 97 percent.

Q. What does this additional RFID information give the retailer?
For retail or wholesale, if you get a product and already 70 percent of the vase life is gone but the flowers look OK, then you can make an intelligent decision about what to do with those flowers.

Q. What is the likelihood that shippers will begin using this technology?
Demand is going to make this work. Mass marketers are going to demand the tags, and there’s no choice, end of story. We do have some very progressive growers and shippers who are going to tout that they’re using this technology. The RFID tags cost $3 to $4 each, and the readers, of which they’ll only need one, are $1,500 to $4,000 each.

Q. If you were a wholesaler or retailer, would you demand this information?
If I was a receiver, absolutely. I would consider changing suppliers if they refuse to use them.

Morgan Chilson, formerly a business reporter and editor in the newspaper industry, is now a freelance writer living in Topeka, Kan.

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