SAN DIEGO — A new tiny tracking technology is aiming to reshape the way food products are monitored from source to store.
Wiliot, an Israel-based company with a San Diego office, developed the devices as a means of solving a gray area in food supply chains that contributes to global food waste and the spread of foodborne illnesses.
The tiny tags are roughly the size of a postage stamp and contain a battery-free microprocessor, known as ambient IoT, that transmits information to a Bluetooth cloud system. From there, companies can gather data to both track and monitor their products.
The technology, which was rolled out for use last year, can be used by suppliers, manufacturers and stores to find information like where their products are in transit, the temperature of the environment it is in, and if a delivery made it to the right place.
Its size and inexpensive production cost – roughly 10 cents per stamp – allows it to be used to track individual units, everything from a crate of produce to a single package of food.
“It’s able to do more than just track and trace where a food’s been at any point in time,” Frank Yiannas, former deputy commissioner with the Food and Drug Administration, explained. “What (these tags can do) is change and open up a new paradigm on how we try to regulate food.”
Current practices for enforcing food regulations are relatively outdated, according to Yiannas, typically relying on paper records and in-person inspections to ensure compliance. As he explained, these inspections happen relatively infrequently at any given food facility, happening at least once every three to five years depending on risk factors.
Aside from these measures, it’s difficult to keep a close watch on food products as they move through their distribution channels.
The opaqueness of the process has contributed to the countless “food scares” over the last few decades — like the recurring E. Coli outbreaks from baby spinach or the fatal 2009 salmonella outbreak from peanut butter — that led to mass recalls of products from grocery store shelves.
Between this year and last, the number of FDA food recalls is on track to rise about 17.4%, setting a five-year high, according to a quarterly recall report from the business firm Sedgwick. Undeclared allergens were the leading cause of these recalls, while bacterial contamination came in a close second.
Upwards of 48 million Americans — about one in six — are affected by foodborne illness annually, leading to 128,000 hospitalizations and 3,000 deaths, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“While the food supply is pretty safe, there’s still too much risk in the food system,” Yiannas said, pointing to the prolonged response to the peanut butter outbreak. As he explained, it took food inspectors months to trace and pull all the impacted products from the market, leaving thousands vulnerable to infection.
Some types of tracking technologies are already used for goods shipped through large containers and truck trailers, but it’s typically not used for smaller shipments due to its high cost.
However, nearly all manufacturers and suppliers of food products are going to be expected to start keeping records about their goods’ movement under the FDA’s new “traceability rule,” something Yiannas helped craft while he was with the agency.
The requirement, which was implemented last year and has a compliance deadline of 2026, allows for rapid identification and removal of potentially contaminated products.
That’s where a technology like Wiliot’s comes in, Yiannas, who now serves as an advisor to the company, explains.
“Ambient IoT and Wiliot’s approach is saying, ‘Hey, anything that’s physical can be digital,’” he said. “We can monitor attributes of that food product in real-time … it allows you to change the compliance paradigm from what I often refer to as a ‘snapshot in time.’”
“It’s like turning on the light switch and being able to see all these food items are at with precision and accuracy that you just don’t have with paper-based trails,” he added.
Aside from the public health benefit, real-time information with technology that can be used to track shipments at a crate level creates more sustainable and efficient supply chains that can bring fresher products to the consumer, thus cutting down on household food waste.
Over a third of the U.S.’s annual food supply is either wasted or lost, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Each year, about 119 billion pounds is thrown out, costing households upwards of $408 billion.
Excessive food waste and loss has also been linked to creating conditions that exacerbate the climate change crisis, given its significant greenhouse gas footprint.
Annual food loss embodies roughly 170 million metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent GHG emissions, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency – an amount that equals the annual CO2 emissions of 42 coal-fired power plants.
“Every day of shelf life you give to the consumer, it’s a day less of waste,” Yiannas said. “That’s important for society, it’s important for consumers’ wallets and pocketbooks.”
Technology like ambient IoT as a tool for supply-chain monitoring, he added, provides manufacturers and regulators the ability to solve “some of our remaining and biggest food safety challenges.”
“This is technology that is already being used,” Yiannas said. “Some of the world’s largest retailers are working with Wiliot.”
“With the FDA food traceability rule going into effect in January 2026, I think you’re gonna see a significant ramp up of people starting to leverage technology such as Wiliot’s IoT pixels,” he added. “The benefits of (the technology) is going to be so much more than just food safety … It’ll be about running smarter, safer, more sustainable supply chains.”