- Facing increasing resistance and concerns about privacy,
the United States' largest food companies and retailers will try to win
consumer approval for radio identification devices by portraying the technology
as an essential tool for keeping the nation's food supply safe from terrorists.
- The companies are banding together and through an industry
association are lobbying to have the Department of Homeland Security designate
radio frequency identification, or RFID, as an antiterrorism technology.
- In addition, they are asking members of Congress and
other influential figures to portray RFID in a favorable light. Companies
like Procter & Gamble, Wal-Mart and Johnson & Johnson see RFID
technology as a godsend. By implanting tiny radio transponders in their
product packaging, the companies can instantly track their goods from factory
floors all the way to retailers' warehouses. What's more, retailers can
get a 100 percent accurate inventory of products on their shelves instantly
with RFID detectors. Taking inventory now involves countless hours of overnight
work with inaccurate results.
- Experts estimate industry could save billions of dollars
each year in inventory and logistical costs with RFID. Trouble is, privacy
advocates see RFID as a massive invasion of privacy. They say the technology
would let retailers, marketers, governments or criminals scan people --
or even their houses -- and ascertain what they own. The technology hasn't
been rolled out widely yet, but already it's causing controversy. Earlier
this summer, Wal-Mart caved to protests and pulled radio-tagged items out
of a store in Brockton, Massachusetts.
- To win the hearts and minds of consumers, retailers and
food and drug companies may portray the technology as an antiterrorist
tool. They say the technology can help them keep precise track of all goods
and help in recall efforts should their products be contaminated or laced
with poison during a terrorist attack.
- The Auto-ID Center, an RFID consortium, presented its
technology to Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge in Washington, D.C.,
last year. In fact, many Auto-ID Center sponsors consider Ridge's blessing
to be key to public acceptance. An internal presentation by Fleishman-Hillard,
the powerhouse PR firm that advises the center, lists Ridge as a "top-tier
opinion leader." And the minutes (PDF) of another meeting, attended
by a representative of the Department of Defense, records a group statement
that the technology will catch on "when the government mandates it
for homeland security reasons."
- The center also has targeted Sens. John McCain and Patrick
Leahy, and Reps. Charles Dingell and Billy Tauzin, for recruitment to help
Americans overcome their suspicions about RFID tags on consumer goods.
Members of the privacy rights group Caspian uncovered the Auto-ID Center
documents, which are marked "confidential," in early July.
- With Ridge's approval for RFID, the food and drug companies
and retailers hope to win over a wary public. They also may get legal protection
under the Safety Act of 2002 -- a tort-reform law that offers blanket lawsuit
protections to makers of antiterrorism devices, should those devices fail
during a terrorist attack.
- "If we get a declaration from Homeland Security
that this is the step we need to take to protect the food supply, that's
the step it will take to move this technology forward," said Procter
& Gamble supply-chain executive Larry Kellam at an RFID industry conference
- Procter & Gamble and other Auto-ID Center sponsors
-- including Sara Lee, Kellogg, Nestle, Coca-Cola, Pepsico, Johnson &
Johnson and Pfizer -- lobbied lawmakers and officials last year for the
lawsuit protections that they now hope will apply to RFID technology.
- "We have been working with legislators to make sure
the right regulations are in place to make RFID tags commercially feasible,"
said Stephanie Childs, a spokeswoman for the Grocery Manufacturers of America,
which lobbied on behalf of the food and drug companies and retailers.
- But not all legislators on Capitol Hill are buying into
RFID tags, especially when they see companies playing the terrorism card
to gain acceptance for the technology.
- "We would never support legislation to prevent businesses
from using RFID the way they want to," said Jeff Deist, a spokesman
for Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas), who is a staunch privacy rights advocate.
"That's a question for the marketplace. But once the Homeland Security
Department gets involved, that's another story entirely."