The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) estimates that up to 40% of pharmaceuticals shipped from countries such as Argentina, Colombia, and Mexico may be counterfeit. The FDA is investigating more cases that involve well-organized criminal operations working to introduce finished counterfeit drugs that resemble legitimate drugs that may contain only inactive or incorrect ingredients, improper doses or be otherwise contaminated. These fake, diluted, and mislabeled medications pose a health threat to patients and a financial risk to manufacturers. 
The FDA is working with pharmaceutical suppliers to keep the US drug supply security in the face of increasing criminal efforts to introduce counterfeit drugs. They believe that pharmaceutical manufacturers and suppliers should be using modern, comprehensive security protections to keep pace with increasingly sophisticated threats. The best technical solution is to use radio-frequency identification (RFID) with electronic product code (EPC) technology for the electronic tracking, tracing, and authenticating of pharmaceuticals.
RFID technology uses small electronic devices that contain antennas and chips that create an electromagnetic field. Instead of using a generic tag, RFID has been taken a step further using RFID-EPC, which is like the SKU, but the code, or EPC-enabled serial number, is inside a tag or label that’s permanently affixed to the item. This gives the item the identification needed to prove that it’s authentic. As this technology becomes more prevalent, it’s going to be a significant hit to the counterfeit item market.
RFID-EPC Tracks Supply Chains
When pharmacies receive a shipment, they can search for the EPC number in their database and see data about the shipment. If the drugs don’t have a serial number, or the serial number doesn’t match what the company said is shipped, then the product could be counterfeit. If two cases have the same code or other discrepancies appear, it’s obvious that someone has tampered with the shipments or products. The authorities could use the audit trail created when tags are read at each shipping point in the supply chain to track were counterfeit drugs entered.
RFID tracking could improve the integrity of a supply chain. By clearly identifying and tracking products, cartons, and pallets, companies can maintain much tighter control over legitimate shipments and ensure that they aren’t hijacked or stolen. This can prevent products from falling into the hands of counterfeiters, who could dilute or alter the drugs and then foist them on unsuspecting pharmacies and consumers. The appeal of RFID-EPC technology is the ability to identify individual products throughout the supply chain and create seamless visibility.
The FDA suggests that using EPC tags on packages could help identify counterfeit drugs. The tags would contain license plates that would identify a manufacturer, describe the product, and include a unique serial number. Legitimate drug manufacturers overseas would tag their products; US customs agencies and distribution companies would scan the tags and check a database to verify the origin of the shipment. The system could be used domestically as well. Before RFID-EPC existed, a simple barcode identified a type of item and not a specific item.
Without RFID-EPC, a person can create a name-brand prescription and duplicate the barcode, and the buyer is unaware of the authenticity of that item. With an EPC tag, the owner of the brand assigns an identification number that’s unique to each item. This number is stored in a database. When a pharmacist receives the items, it can scan the medication into their system and ensure that each item is authentic. The goal is for every party along the supply chain to have the capability of scanning items and identifying them in this universal EPC system.
RFID-EPC for Pharmaceuticals
Major pharmaceutical companies are already exploring the possibility of using EPC tags on drug shipments. While the price of the tags, still at least 50 cents for orders of less than a million pieces, is an inhibitor for other industries, it’s less so for drug companies. Most often, the containers of drugs shipped to pharmacies cost thousands or tens of thousands of dollars. Preventing the infiltration of counterfeit items would have a positive economic impact on legitimate companies since they would be able to sell their products as intended to their target consumers.
If an item is counterfeit, there’s no way for a consumer to know that the item is safe. This applies to prescription drugs, toys, and even jewelry. Plus, consumers know that they are getting a quality product that’s worth the price they paid. Counterfeit items don’t possess the quality of an authentic item. All in all, RFID technology has become very important in the security of items in the pharmaceutical sector. With the worldwide adoption of EPC, it’s expected that it’ll be more difficult for counterfeiters to place their copycat items on the market, especially as the presence of these items and details about them are tracked across multiple sectors throughout the world.
Over time, this could be what’s needed to squash the counterfeit market. Syrma has already successfully deployed RFID anti-counterfeiting solutions to safeguard the authenticity of pharmaceuticals shipped around the world. We look forward to collaborating with clients to develop more applications that incorporate our tags, readers, and software to protect brands, retailers and consumers.
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