With help from companies based from Taiwan to California, the Hawaii Department of Agriculture has begun a pilot project aimed at monitoring temperatures of fresh produce during shipping.

“The first phase is to test among three different distribution centers in the islands,” said John Ryan, who heads the state agency’s quality assurance office.

Taiwan-based Asia Pallet Pooling provides funding and plastic pallets for the pilot project, while Intelleflex Corp., Santa Clara, Calif., supplies the battery assisted passive radio frequency identification tags that fit in a cavity in the pallets, Ryan said.

Using a hand-held scanner, data from the pallets’ RFID tags are collected as produce is loaded onto a truck, again when the truck is unloaded at the airport and yet again when the load comes off the plane at the destination airport, he said.

“Theoretically the produce is packed and goes immediately onto the airplane, but we all know it sometimes doesn’t go into the plane right away,” Ryan said. “We’re trying to cooperatively look at data to see if there are any patterns that we can attack to prevent the produce from heating up on the tarmac or wherever.”

Honolulu-based Armstrong Produce provides the labor and the distribution centers for the pilot project.

The anticipated battery life of the Intelleflex tags is at least three years, Ryan said, because very little energy is used to collect the periodic temperature readings.

“It’s only when the tag is hit by radio waves from the hand held scanner that the transmitter is activated,” Ryan said.

The ultimate goal of the intra-island project is far reaching.

“We’re really after a trans-Pacific cold chain monitoring and control program as a model,” Ryan said.

A meeting of the Singapore-based Asian Pacific Economic Cooperative is scheduled to be held in Honolulu in November 2011.

“We want to be able to establish a documented cold chain control model that could be implemented between Hawaii and Asia, Hawaii and Mexico and Hawaii and the U.S. mainland and present that model at the APEC meeting,” Ryan said.

The state agency is not dragging its feet, however. It has begun soliciting grower-shippers in various countries who import to or export from Hawaii, Ryan said. Among the first to respond was Mexico’s Department of Agriculture, which is attempting to recruit grower-shippers who export fresh produce from Mexico to Hawaii.

Food safety and traceability are important issues to the Hawaii Department of Agriculture.

“Up to 90% of our food comes from somewhere else, either by air freight or ship,” Ryan said. “What we’re really after down the road in addition to the pallet tags is a system where we can see the bar codes on cases, and then we can associate the pallet ID with bar code ID.”