(Wired News) 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 in June.
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.”