PLANO, TX — Perhaps your supermarket can tell you just what temperatures your fresh or frozen food has experienced in that store. But what about what’s gone on before that point? Has the food been processed, stored, and transported at the proper temperature from the time it was harvested or otherwise produced?

Small, wireless sensors, no bigger around than a half-dollar coin and about twice as thick, can tell the story continuously in real time and relay the results anywhere in the world, including to the store’s refrigeration service contractor.

That’s the concept of FreshLoc Technologies, Inc., headquartered here. It’s an outgrowth of the TempAssure monitors and supporting infrastructure developed by the NewID Co., which owns FreshLoc.

The TempAssure approach was successfully employed last year at such diverse sites as Draeger’s Supermarkets in the San Francisco Bay, CA, area, and Hardie’s Fruit and Vegetable Co. of Dallas, TX. (Those installations were described in two articles in the June 7, 1999 issue of The News.)

Now the technology has been expanded so that the wireless FreshLoc monitors can constantly check temperature, humidity, and other conditions of food in processing and storage facilities as well as in transport from origin point to retail store.

Deviation Triggers Alert Via The Net

Any deviation from safe ranges can be instantly detected, triggering an alert via the Internet. Printed reports can assure any interested party that the food has been handled and kept properly throughout its life, from its origin to store shelf or case.

While temperature or humidity logs previously could ensure that food has been kept properly while in transport, for example, the FreshLoc system and its communications interface can tell an owner or destination buyer of the cargo instantly about conditions while the food is en route to its destination.

FreshLoc has recently allied itself with Ecolab, Inc., a leader in food industry sanitation. Ecolab is a $3 billion leader in providing equipment and products around the world to keep food clean and safe.

The FreshLoc system is a wireless, Internet-based, automatic data-collection system based on those tiny sensors. They relay their information via small antennae to an Internet-linked computer. That information can be collected and relayed to multiple media, including local-area and wide-area networks, wired and cellular phones, pagers, and fax machines.

Sets Firms Apart From Competitors

Hardie’s is now using the FreshLoc system as both an energy- and fuel-saving tool, as well as a marketing tool.

Before automatic monitoring of its refrigerated trucks became so convenient, trucks would be turned on perhaps 2 hrs to be sure of reaching the desired temperature for transporting fruits and vegetables. Company officials knew, however, that some trucks cooled faster than others. With the FreshLoc monitors, each truck can be monitored as it cools down and loaded as soon as it reaches the target temperature.

As a service to customers, Hardie’s offers those with their own lockers (stocked with Hardie’s produce) an electronic key to its FreshLoc monitoring site so such customers can check the storage condition of their own stock. Typical of such customers are some of the best-known, quality-conscious restaurant operators in Hardie’s market area.

Other customers using FreshLoc include Land O’ Lakes, Sioux Falls, SD; A-1 Refrigeration, Inc.-B&R Stores, Inc., Lincoln, NE; and PLM Leasing, San Francisco. PLM uses the sensors to monitor conditions in its refrigerated trailers.

Advantages For Refrigeration Contractor

Floyd Warren, manager of A-1, said B&R officials came to him last summer saying they wanted something to take the human element out of checking and logging temperatures of refrigerated or frozen-food cases in their stores, which operate under the name of Russ’s Markets and Super Savers.

Warren had just read (in The News) about the FreshLoc approach as employed in Draeger’s Supermarkets. He reached FreshLoc officials in Plano and came up with a solution for B&R Stores. The system is already in place in three locations, and “We’re getting ready to put a fourth store online.

“Now we monitor for them,” says Warren. The FreshLoc sensors talk to a reader, which relays that information to an in-store PC. “When any unit gets out of its proper temperature range, it may alert the store visually or audibly, but the PC will call our pagers (every A-1 tech has one) or our answering system at night and let us know there’s a problem.”

When so alerted, the contractor first calls the store and asks someone there to check the case from which the alarm came. If the problem is more than, say, a door left open or a defrost cycle in progress, a technician is sent to the store to service the unit.

“The system can call a cell phone, too,” Warren notes.

In addition, sensors send their data every few minutes to FreshLoc headquarters in Plano, and Warren or someone else at A-1 can call up the log of any or all sensors. So can store officials, from virtually any PC or within their own company network.

While the stores in which FreshLoc is presently employed are all in the Lincoln area, B&R has markets elsewhere in the state and will eventually install the FreshLoc system in them, Warren says.

“There are other monitors in the marketplace,” he says, “but not having to connect the sensors by wire to any reporting site is a great convenience.”

Advancements In Food Safety

The alliance between Ecolab and FreshLoc is viewed by officials of both companies as a big step forward in food safety, a joining of technology of both firms.

Doug Foster, FreshLoc president and chief operating officer, says that “Ecolab is already known as an expert in food safety. Supermarket chains, groceries, and other food marketers are all familiar with Ecolab and its Kay Chemical Division, and trust them because of their renowned products and service.

“Food safety is no longer solved by a single technology,” Foster adds. “We’re very pleased to combine Ecolab’s superior sanitation technology with our wireless technology.”

Ecolab chairman, president, and ceo Allan L. Schuman agrees. He believes the combination will reduce operator costs through better control of perishable product storage environments.

Sidebar: Another Way to Monitor Cold Cargoes En Route

A technology developed by Oplink Communications Ltd., based in Israel, also is being used to remotely monitor cargo conditions and other vehicle data. It is being used for bidirectional communication between computers installed on buses, trucks, and other vehicles, and fixed base stations installed along vehicle routes and at depots.

Oplink’s OPM-V system is in use in more than 1,000 vehicles in bus and truck fleet operation in Europe, Israel, and South America. Yellowave Corp., Los Angeles, CA, an incubator of high-tech companies, announced May 15 that it has signed agreements in principal to acquire Oplink.