(Feb. 23) Radio frequency identification is the wave of the future. But the most important word in that declaration may be “future.”

For the present, software provider FreshLink LLC, Bakersfield, Calif., is pushing bar code technology as an alternative to RFID until the latter works out some of its kinks, said Minos Athanassiadis, a partner in the company.

And many of FreshLink’s customers don’t need much of a push.

“People are using bar code technology more and more to track product as it’s coming out of the fields,” Athanassiadis said. “Customers are requesting a higher level of accuracy in traceability.”

A higher level, he said, that RFID often can’t deliver — at least not in its present state of evolution. With the right database management, bar code technology can tell grower-shippers, distributors and retailers when a crop was picked, what field it came from, what crew picked it, even what worker picked it.

“It enables them to do a much deeper analysis than has been traditionally available,” Athanassiadis said.

The big disadvantage of bar code technology, of course, is that bar codes must be manually scanned. RFID tags, by contrast, can be read automatically as product passes through a portal.

But RFID-tagged product often is misread, and at rates unacceptable to would-be users. The problem is even worse if, as often happens when fresh fruits and vegetables are shipped, product gets wet. That’s where bar codes have another advantage over RFID, Athanassiadis said: Water doesn’t have much of an effect on bar code readings.

And until the price of RFID tags comes down, he added, bar codes are a much cheaper alternative. And there are other advantages, Athanassiadis said — like software compatibility.

“To the extent that retailers want RFID, that’s fine, but it doesn’t do much good if grower-shippers don’t have the database to make sense of what the RFID information is telling them,” he said. “There are a whole lot of benefits in bar code that the produce industry hasn’t explored enough,” he said. “I think we’ll start seeing a lot of RFID/bar code combinations.”

INTEGRATING TECHNOLOGIES

Bar code may be FreshLink’s focus for the moment, but long term, the company has its eyes set on integrating different technologies into a single system that can help grower-shippers grow better crops.

Called an expert system, it would cull data from global positioning satellite tracking, infrared photographs of fields, remote sensing and other cutting-edge technologies, enter it into a single database and come up with answers to growers’ questions about yields, quality and other growing-related issues.

“It may sound like science fiction, but it’s a direction that agriculture, and particularly high-value-crop agriculture like produce, is headed in,” Athanassiadis said.

Individually, all of the technologies that expert systems would combine are now in use. The trick is figuring out how to bring them together into a database users can make sense of, Athanassiadis said. FreshLink is working with a couple of grower-shippers on creating such a system.