The development of the system is a key part of the year-long project entitled Improving the availability, quality management and traceability of freshwater fish using RFID technology. The primary objectives of the project are to promote the availability of freshwater fish for retailers, professional kitchens and holiday residents; to improve the quality and traceability of fish products; and to improve transparency and accountability in the fish supply chain. The project is funded by the Quality Chain programme belonging to Finland’s Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry.
Demand for fish is increasing in Finland and around the world. Information on the origin of fish and accountability are becoming important choice criteria for producers, retailers and consumers. In Finland, demand for freshwater fish has grown along with demand for other local foods. However, freshwater fish is not available in sufficient quantities or availability is not consistent enough to meet the needs of professional kitchens and holiday residents.
Fresh fish spoils easily and it does not keep for long. Fresh fish must be stored at a temperature close to that of melting ice throughout the entire supply chain. There are several laws, regulations and guidelines governing the storage and transport of fish all the way from the fishing rod to the shopping basket. These aim to ensure the hygiene and safety of fresh fish. However, almost every consumer who has bought fish has experienced poor quality on occasion.
As for storage and transport, there are also regulations and legislation governing the traceability of freshwater fish. Traceability regulations for freshwater fishing differ in part from their equivalents for saltwater fishing but both sets of regulations concern information provided to consumers. Consumers must have access to the following information: the trade name, scientific name, fishing area, production methods and information on whether the product has been frozen. Within the production and distribution chain, freshwater fish must be traceable one step forwards and one step backwards.
From the point of view of traceability, the most problematic factors are the small batch sizes and the mixing of different batches of fish during processing. According to the law, fish of the same species that are caught in the same area on the same day may be mixed. However, fish of the same species that were caught in different areas may become mixed during processing, meaning that it is impossible to definitively determine the origin if a problem arises.
Electronic monitoring system to the rescue
Improving the traceability and quality management of the freshwater fish supply chain requires all parties to work together openly. The electronic monitoring system can bring transparency to the various steps in the supply chain. Being able to definitively show the various stages in the supply chain could provide retailers, restaurants and fish processors with a competitive advantage. The food industry already makes use of electronic systems for temperature monitoring, batch monitoring and in-house control but these are typically closed systems within companies. There is a clear need for an open system that describes the entire freshwater fish supply chain.
This project aimed to develop an easy-to-use system that does not require users to make significant investments in devices or technology. From the very beginning, the intention was to create an open system that could be used throughout the entire freshwater fish supply chain and that would be easily adaptable to suit the supply chains of other foodstuffs.
The monitoring system was planned with the help of background information provided by interviews with fishers and fish processors, as well as descriptions of the processes in the fish supply chain. The monitoring system consists of RFID/temperature logging cards and mobile phones with NFC capabilities. The system’s background software consists of a mobile phone application and internet-based software (hereinafter referred to as the Järvikala software). The systems also makes use of the mobile phone’s location and data transfer functionality.
The Järvikala software provides parties in the fish processing chain with up-to-date information on the batches of fish that they are handling. The information can also be used directly for various reports, such as in-house monitoring and inventory control. Consumers can use the system to receive information on the fishing area, fishing time, processing points and storage temperatures of fish they have bought.
Why use RFID technology?
Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) is a technology for identifying products and items using radio frequencies. Information is stored in an RFID identifier, also known as a tag. It can be read wirelessly using an RFID reader that operates on radio frequencies. RFID is currently used for several different purposes, including access control systems, monitoring systems for retail logistics and monitoring of food in transit.
Near Field Communication (NFC) is a technology that enables communication between a mobile phone equipped with NFC capabilities and RFID tags. By placing the phone close to a tag, the identifier can be loaded with information. The information can also be collected and transferred to other devices, using solutions such as internet-based cloud services. Internationally, NFC technology is already used in the retail sector and its popularity is expected to continue to increase. Almost all mobile phone manufacturers have included NFC functionality in their newest smartphones.
How does monitoring work in practice?
When a fisher makes a catch, he/she activates a temperature logging card, transfers information about the species of fish and the size of the catch to the system and activates temperature measurements using a mobile phone application. The information is transferred directly to the Järvikala application. The card is placed in amongst the fish, where it is monitored up until the next step in the chain, which may be a processing plant. The card measures the temperature at suitable intervals, such as every five minutes.
When the fish is delivered to a processing plant, the card is read using a mobile phone and temperature measurements are no longer taken. Location information is automatically stored on the card and by the Järvikala software. When the fish continues its journey, the card is reactivated and the next recipient can read the information. This behaviour is repeated at every point in the chain when fish is processed, right up until it is bought by a consumer. This enables delivery information for the entire chain to be stored electronically. It can then be checked using the Järvikala software or the RFID tag. At the end of the chain, consumers in shops or restaurants can use their own smartphones – if they are equipped with NFC capabilities – to read the information stored on the tag about the various stages the fish has passed through. Alternatively, the information could be presented to consumers on an electronic display.
The system has been tested in practice for the fisher-processor-retailer chain. The piloting process has produced promising results. The system has proven itself to be technically functional and the feedback from the stakeholders involved has been positive. Fishers also gave good feedback: the system is easy to use and the process is not too time-consuming. As the system can easily be adapted to monitor other foodstuffs, it has a wide range of applications and there is a strong basis for commercialising the system.