You walk into a store and a voice from a kiosk asks how you like the shirts that you bought last month. That’s not as far off as you might think. Radio frequency identification is top of mind with retailers and others today.  

Last month, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved implantable medical ID chips that could be placed under the skin in your upper arm. In an emergency, doctors could scan the chip and retrieve vital medical information that could save your life.

Wal-Mart officials say they want RFID on packages from their suppliers, and Wal-Mart usually gets what it wants. What it wants is to identify when and where a product moves. But, inventory control is only the first goal. Future goals will include tracking purchasing trends,  “smart shelves” that indicate when a product left the shelf, and what products you looked at while you were visiting the store.

There is a whole host of applications for RFID technology — some good, some questionable. Debates will rage on and laws will surface. The point is, you will be hearing a lot more about this technology in your personal life and professional life in the future.

In terms of your professional life, the USDA-directed National Animal Identification System does not include RFID technology for the swine side of the equation. The agency wants to be “technology neutral,” and wants species industries to direct how animal identification best fits their needs. For market hogs, group-lot ID is the direction you’re headed. 

Remember, NAIS is designed solely for animal-health traceback in the event of an exotic- or foreign-animal-disease epidemic. Animal ID alone does not translate to product traceability, premiums for your hogs or connect you to a niche market. That requires you to add attributes to a product, animal or system.

“Animal ID is a technical trait. It doesn’t change the product in any way,” notes Mark Engle, DVM with the National Pork Board, who’s chaired the swine ID efforts for nearly three years. “It’s something that anyone can do, and then it becomes the standard.”

Now, that’s not to say that RFID doesn’t have a place in pork production, or that you can’t add value to your product. It’s just not what you should expect from NAIS.

RFID’s benefit comes via individual animal identification. The decision whether or not to adopt the technology will be up to you — and possibly the market buying your product.

From a production standpoint, RFID offers you the potential to collect reams of information about an animal’s performance in the production cycle. For example, studies show that through RFID monitoring of water consumption patterns, researchers could identify animals that were falling ill four days sooner than visual indications provided.

From a marketing standpoint, RFID can provide information about such things as how an animal was raised or the medications it received, which may be important to retailers, consumers or export markets.

Increasingly, we’re seeing private entities influence how food is produced. That will only grow. McDonald’s announced that it wants animal traceback to the farm of origin within 48 hours. Many export market competitors are already deeper into the animal ID and source-verified product arena than the United States is today. Japan, for one, could determine that it expects that kind of commitment from all of its trading partners.

RFID will change the way food is produced and marketed. Producers who adopt RFID will receive information about their product as it moves further through the supply chain. It also will allow the supply chain to collect information about you and your product. Retailers will be able to tighten their ship in terms of monitoring inventories and product demands. They will know more precisely what sells and what doesn’t, for what price and to whom.

RFID is one of those technologies that will touch all areas of your life. It’s best to familiarize yourself with it now, and start thinking about what it does and doesn’t offer your production system. Because once the technology genie is out of the bottle, it can’t be forced back in.