What is the essence of RFID and NFC? And how to use them in the foodtech industry?

Ilya M, mobile developer
Ilya M, mobile developer
Dec 15, 2023
13 minutes
It seemed to me that NFC technology appeared relatively recently. I clearly remember how the salespeople looked at me when I brought my smartphone to the terminal. However, it turns out that the first ever widespread use of contactless payment occurred in 1995 in South Korea. They issued UPass cards, with which you could pay contactlessly for bus trips. In 1997, the technology was used by Mobil to allow car owners to pay for fuel without waiting in line.
The first international standard for contactless payments with bank cards appeared in 1996. But it wasn't until 2004 that the first contactless bank cards were issued in the United States. And two years later, the first ever mobile device with NFC functionality, the Nokia 6131, went on sale.
In 2011, Google Wallet was released - a real electronic wallet that made it possible to abandon a plastic card for a phone. In 2015, it was supplemented with the Android Pay service, and in 2018, both systems were replaced with Google Pay. In 2014, Apple presented its answer to Google by developing the Apple Pay contactless payment system. A year later, an analogue appeared from Samsung.
And yet, NFC is no longer just about payments. It has much more capabilities, especially when combined with RFID technology. Let's figure it all out and find out how to use them in the food tech industry.

What is RFID?

RFID (or Radio Frequency Identification) is a technology for identifying ID tags using radio frequency signals.
It works something like this: there is an RFID reader (reads the tags) and RFID tags, the reader transmits a radio frequency signal that powers the tag, which, in turn, sends a response back to the reader with its identification data.
Nowadays, RFID has many examples of use, one of which, and probably the most common one, is tracking and control of inventory or other things, for example, in the same stores, many products have their own RFID tags on things, so scanners can get information about the quantity and the type of products available in stock.
Or, another example, the LRS company provides a service that is based on RFID, namely, the tables in the establishment are covered with RFID tags and when you are given a number and you put it on your table, the waiters in the system have information about which table you are at you are sitting. Given that the establishment can be large, this is very convenient for both visitors and employees.

Difference between RFID and NFC

NFC (or Near Field Communication) is a form of RFID technology that uses the same HF (high frequency) RFID range (13.56 MHz).
RFID has three main technologies that use different radio frequencies: low frequency (LF RFID), high frequency (HF RFID) and ultra high frequency (UHF RFID).
The NFC reader inside modern smartphones operates in the same range as HF RFID (13.56 MHz), therefore it is not compatible with LF RFID or HF RFID tags.
Also, HF RFID and NFC are not the same, as NFC has several additional protocols on top of standard HF RFID. So they are not completely compatible.
There are also other differences:
— The distance at which they work. NFC works within a radius of 10cm, while UHF RFID works within a range of 10m
— UHF RFID is very power hungry and the reader requires large antennas, which makes it impossible to integrate into a smartphone.
— UHF RFID can read multiple tags at once, while NFC can only read one.
— In general, their purpose is also different, most often the use of NFC is limited to contactless payments, and RFID tags for tracking and control of products.

Can we scan RFID using the NFC module of a smartphone?

In fact, the NFC reader inside most modern smartphones can be used as an RFID reader, with the exception of RFID tags that use non-standard technologies, such as Mifare classic, and such tags are not compatible with the NFC module inside the phone.
It is also unlikely that you will be able, or even will not be able to scan the most commonly used RFID tags, for example from the same stores, because they mostly use either UHF RFID, the range of which is incompatible with NFC.
The situation is similar with LF RFID.

RFID and NFC requirements

If you want to use your phone as an RFID reader, then you need HF RFID type tags without using Mifare technology, otherwise your smartphone simply will not be able to recognize this tag.
If we are talking about NFC tags, then they also have different standards, protocols and types, and the readers also have different reading technologies. Therefore, if you use NFC tags and want to read them through an application using the NFC module of your smartphone, I recommend using tags with one type or standard. Personally, I would recommend tags that support Ndef, as it has such advantages as:

Compatibility. This is the main advantage of using the NDEF format. By using this format, you can be sure that your data will be compatible with any NFC device that supports the NDEF format. This eliminates the risk of incompatibility between devices, which could lead to data loss or corruption.
Efficiency. The NDEF format is designed to work efficiently in both space and time. It uses minimal memory and can be read and written quickly.
Flexibility. The NDEF format is very flexible and can be used for a wide variety of applications. It can be used to store any type of document or data, regardless of its size or complexity.
Safety. The NDEF format includes several security features that can be used to protect the data stored in the NDEF message. These features include high-quality encryption and digital signatures.
Simplicity. The NDEF format is simple and easy to use. This does not require any special software or hardware. All you need is a device that supports the NDEF format.

How to use RFID and NFC in food technology?

Inventory management: RFID and NFC can be used to track products all the way from production to sale. This allows for more accurate inventory control, simplifies inventory control, and helps prevent product loss.
Product Security: RFID and NFC technologies can be used to create a product tracking system to ensure product safety. For example, they can help track production dates and expiration dates of products, and provide information about the origin of products to consumers.
Improved consumer experience: NFC can be used to create interactive marketing campaigns or provide additional information to consumers about products. For example, using NFC tags on food packaging, consumers can obtain information about the nutritional value, preparation methods or origin of the product.
Contactless payment: NFC technology is also widely used for contactless payment in restaurants and cafes. It allows customers to pay for purchases by touching their smartphones or cards to readers, making the payment process easier and faster.
Monitoring storage conditions: RFID can be used to monitor food storage conditions, such as temperature or humidity, which helps prevent food spoilage and ensure food quality.

Which stores have already implemented NFC and RFID in their business processes?

IBM Food Trust: IBM has developed the Food Trust platform, which uses blockchain and RFID technology to track food from suppliers to consumers. This allows you to accurately identify the sources of products, track their condition and ensure safety.
Carrefour и RFID: Carrefour, a major global supermarket chain, is using RFID tags on packaging to improve inventory management and improve customer experience.
Zest Labs: Zest Labs has created the Zest Fresh system, which uses RFID to track and monitor the temperature of fresh produce such as fruits and vegetables. This helps improve the quality and shelf life of food.
SATO Global Solutions: They offer tracking solutions for retail stores and supermarkets using RFID technology. This helps to accurately determine the availability of products on shelves and automate inventory processes.
SmartLabel от Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA): This initiative allows consumers to access detailed product information by scanning NFC tags or QR codes on packaging. They can learn about the composition, nutritional value, origin and other details.

How do NFC and RFID technologies improve the customer experience in restaurants?

Automated order pick-up points: Some fast food and restaurant companies use NFC technology for automated order pick-up systems. By scanning a code or touching a smartphone to a reader, customers can pick up their orders without staff involvement.
Restaurant apps using NFC: Some restaurant apps offer the ability to order and pay for food via NFC. Visitors can scan special RFID tags on the table to conveniently order and pay for food and drinks.
Cafe Table Navigation for Waiters: Table Tracker is a wireless table location solution that allows table servers to know exactly where customers are sitting and get food to the table faster. This was designed to increase efficiency and productivity, as well as improve customer experience.

Why do businesses need RFID and NFC at all?

Improved inventory management and loss reduction
Accurate product tracking using RFID and NFC allows companies to better control their inventory, prevent excess inventory, and reduce losses due to food spoilage. This significantly reduces costs and increases business efficiency.
Greater transparency and product safety
Consumers are increasingly seeking transparency about product information, and RFID and NFC technologies can provide detailed data on the origin, composition and safety of products. This helps build trust in the brand and increases customer loyalty.
Process optimization and service improvement
Automating processes such as inventory and order management with these technologies allows for faster customer service.
Improving staff efficiency
The introduction of RFID and NFC technologies can reduce the need for manual accounting and inventory control, and will also allow movement to be tracked (for example, instead of much more expensive access control systems).
Innovative image and competitive advantage
Businesses that actively use advanced food tech technologies attract more attention and provide more innovative and convenient services compared to competitors, which helps to retain customers and attract new ones.

What should you pay attention to?

Implementing RFID and NFC systems into your business processes is not costly in itself, but you may need an application to customize everything to suit your needs.
While technology provides new levels of security, it can also be susceptible to cybersecurity threats such as data interception or malicious attacks. It is necessary to ensure the protection of confidential consumer data.
As you already understood, NFC has a short range (usually about 10 cm), RFID also has its limitations depending on the type of tags and readers. Keep this in mind.
Integrating new technologies into existing infrastructure will likely require changes to operational processes, which may cause temporary problems and delays.

Who can afford it?

The implementation of RFID and NFC technologies is not necessarily limited to large companies. These technologies can afford everything “from small to large,” the main requirement here is readiness for changes in infrastructure and processes.
There are different levels of cost and different uses. Some companies may start with limited implementation of the technology in certain areas of the business, or use SaaS solutions.
The idea is to understand how these technologies can support a company's business processes and goals. Even small companies can start with limited adoption of technology for specific purposes and gradually scale up use based on resources and business needs.