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Edible Microchips to Aid Cheese Traceability

Parmigiano-Reggiano cheesemakers in Italy are testing the use of high-tech, edible microchips to track and authenticate their products, whose name is protected by EU law.

Blockchain tracking and real time inventory control are two of the key ways the technology can help.

The authentic 90-pound wheels of cheese can cost more than 1000 euros, and the counterfeit market has been estimated at $2 billion annually.

Video Spotlight:  

This post is based on the El País article, Cheesemakers experiment with microchips to authenticate Parmigiano Reggiano, by Lorena Pacho, August 25, 2023, and the YouTube videos in the Spotlight.  Image source: HQuality/Shutterstock

Discussion Questions:

1.  What is value analysis and how does it apply to the producers of Parmigiano-Reggiano?

Guidance: Value analysis is the ongoing process of evaluating a product to find ways to improve it.  This could involve adding new parts or functions, removing old ones that consumers don’t care about or that tend to break, finding new suppliers, deciding to fabricate a part internally, or adjusting the packaging.

In this case, as part of value analysis, cheese producers are seeking ways to modify packaging to improve traceability.  Various options have been tried in the past, and the new promising option is to integrate a microchip in the casein exterior of the cheese.

2. Why is microchip technology important to producers of Parmigiano-Reggiano?  How does it add traceability to the supply chain?

Guidance: Producers of the Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese worked hard to earn the “Protected Designation of Origin” (PDO) status from the EU in 1996.  This means that the cheese can only be made in the Parma region of Italy with local raw materials and traditional techniques.

The technique for making this special cheese dates back to the Middle Ages.  Much of the process remains the same.  The ingredients are simple:  milk, salt, and rennet.  No additives are used.  Thus, creating the unique flavor of the cheese is as much a function of what the local cows eat as it is the special traditional process used by skilled artisans to make the cheese.  The process is time consuming and expensive, requiring twelve months of aging.  Producers are harmed when other businesses around the world use variations of the “Parmesan” name to sell their cheeses.

Traceability, or knowing the origins of the materials used to make one’s product, has becoming increasingly important in supply chain management.  Sometimes, manufacturers and customers are concerned about sustainability issues and want to know who is responsible for creating the materials or products they buy.  Sometimes, issues of worker safety or child labor are at the heart of traceability concerns.  In the instance of Parmigiano-Reggianno cheese, protecting an age old tradition and the producers of the specialty cheese from cheaper, lower quality fakes is paramount.

3. What aspects of product design were most important in the edible microchips?  How is the design of these microchips superior to other alternatives such as RFID chips or QR codes?

Guidance: Designers of products may focus on a variety of criteria as they decide what will or will not be important to the users of their products.  For some products, things like appearance, cost, ease of maintenance, or manufacturability are most important.  In the case of edible microchips, functionality, ease of use, safety, and ethics are among the most important criteria.

The chips’ functionality is far more versatile and durable than other methods for tracking currently in use.  The “p-chips,” as they are called, work in a wide range of temperatures, both hot and cold.  Small as a grain of salt, they are easily and inconspicuously inserted by a robot into the casein label that is put on the top of the cheese wheel.

RFID chips, on the other hand, are bigger, more fragile, and unable to withstand big temperature swings.  Another option that has been used is QR codes, but they are fairly easy to copy, and they break down as the cheese goes through its aging process.

Safety and ethics are also a key concern in the design of tracking mechanisms, since it is possible that someone might eat the casein label and thereby ingest the chip.  Though they are not meant to be eaten, testing has demonstrated the safety of the chips for human consumption.  Furthermore, any worries about the ethics of tracking someone who has eaten a chip can be put to rest, as the chips cannot be read remotely, nor can they be read once they have been eaten.

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