RFID technology thwarts bird's nest counterfeiters
- 29 May 2012
- From the section Business
One of the most coveted beauty products in Asia is found inside a damp and dark three storey house in southern Malaysia's Johor state.
A worker at the swiftlet farm carefully scrapes a small white bird's nest off a rafter.
The delicacy is spun from saliva and it will soon land in someone's soup, as people in China believe that eating bird's nest is good for their skin and they're willing to pay up to US$100 just for a handful.
It's a lucrative industry and counterfeits have flooded the market.
Safety concerns last July effectively halted all exports of bird's nests to China from Malaysia, the world's second biggest supplier of the delicacy.
The Malaysian agricultural ministry says its edible bird's nest industry is worth RM5b ($1.59bn; £1.01bn).
That is why the government is now investing in Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) to boost consumer confidence. It's one of the most common reasons why Asian governments use the technology.
RFID allows a product to be easily tracked from the source to the consumer.
The bird's nests can be sealed in a box with an RFID tag that contains a microchip embedded with details about the harvest. A handheld scanner emits a radio frequency to unlock that information.
It may sound similar to barcodes, but RFID tags are said to be harder to duplicate.
Certificate of authenticity
Counterfeit bird's nests have affected producers like Yanming Resources. At its factory in Kuala Lumpur, more than a dozen women are sifting through the delicacy strand by strand.
Each worker is armed with a set of tweezer to pull out every piece of feather and speck of dirt. The final product can only contain saliva.
Still, it is hard for consumers to tell if a bird's nest is real or not so the company has been forced to lower prices in order to compete with counterfeits.
But with RFID, every step of this laborious process, from harvesting to packaging, is tagged. The data is stored centrally with the government. This official support will be key for consumers.
In essence the RFID becomes a certificate of authenticity, says Yow Lock Sen, who is in charge of overseeing the government project.
The system is still being perfected, but eventually customers who have safety concerns will be able to trace the origins of the product by simply downloading a free app onto a smartphone, and scanning the RFID tag on the product.
Although it is a government research project, participation from the industry is voluntary since it requires companies to buy the RFID tags and reading equipment.
Yanming Resources's Chua Huai Gen says it's a good investment.
"With the RFID technology, consumers will know that they are getting the real thing, so we can mark up our prices by 50%," he says.
Malaysians seem willing to pay a premium for safety.
One of Kuala Lumpur's most luxurious private hospitals charges up to 100 times more than government facilities to deliver babies.
But the Prince Court Medical Centre also uses RFID technology to prevent baby mix-ups.
Mothers and their newborns each get tagged with an RFID bracelet after the delivery.
When the baby is near the mother, the tags will flash a green light. This tells nurses that they have the right match.
Sensors are also installed at every exit in the hospital to track patient movements. An alarm will be triggered off if the baby is taken away from the maternity ward.
Nurses can immediately trace the baby's location with special software available on the computer at the nursing station.
Medical staff say that this RFID system will reduce the chance of kidnapping.
It's not something that Rozaira Binti Mohd worried about during the delivery of her first two children.
But as she holds her newborn, the 32-year-old says she likes the added protection even if it means losing a bit of her privacy.
"I know where is my baby and if there is a possibility of kidnapping security can do something."
The hospital also uses RFID to tag its expensive medical supplies, reducing the time spent by nurses tracking down equipment.
Ultimately, it's about spending more time caring for the patients, according to Bee Lee Wong, the director of nursing services.
Malaysia isn't the only country using RFID systems. Other Asian countries have pioneered different applications of the technology.
South Korea uses RFID to prevent tax evasion by tagging liquor bottles, says Chris Diorio, a professor of engineering and the chairman of one of the world's largest RFID technology providers, Impinj.
But he encountered an even more creative application in Taiwan.
Officials at Kaohsiung harbour, one of the busiest on the island, tag cargo containers with RFID tags. They can be read from a distance by a handheld device, even while on the back of a moving lorry.
Driver identification and cargo information is synchronized centrally, so if anything does not match then customs officials can inspect the cargo.
Any tampering with the cargo is also easy pick up because the RFID chip will stop working, says Mr Diorio.
But if the tag is intact and the information matches, then there is no need - saving thousands of man hours, he says.
"It's clever and it's something none of us had thought about," says Mr Diorio.
He says the technology is still in its early days and will have many other applications.
Still, much of RFID use in Asia is driven by governments making sure that that products are genuine because of the enormous growth in counterfeiting, he says.
As income levels rise in Asia, there is a demand for more guarantees by consumers.
Back at the Yanming Resources bird's nest factory, the delicacies are clean and being reshaped in little moulds before being packaged for export.
The company hopes that RFID will help these bird's nests land on Chinese kitchen tables intact.
Supporters of RFID technology, though, say it is not a fool proof system.
But as long as there are quality and safety concerns in Asia, being able to trace products back to their source may give consumers some sense of control.