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Imagine picking up a pack of beef at a supermarket and being able to immediately retrieve details about the cow it came from.
Not that you or I would want to do that, but a food inspector may wish he could.
And that wish would come true if the food inspector visited Atlantic Beef Products Inc. a fledgling abattoir in Albany, Prince Edward Island (PEI).
This abattoir uses radio frequency identification (RFID) technology to comply with rigorous animal traceability requirements that still govern the Canadian cattle industry years after the Mad Cow scare.
In doing so, the company hopes to turn challenge into an opportunity.
Atlantic Beef Products is using an RFID and barcode-based product tracing system developed by Psion Teklogix Corp., a mobile device and RFID reader company in Mississauga, Ont. and Merit-Trax Technologies Inc. a software company based in St. Laurent, Quebec.
The system, which won a gold award of excellence from the Canadian Information Productivity Awards (CIPA) this year, has streamlined production, enabling product traceability to the animal level.
This means that should our food inspector demand to know the origin of a particular porter house packed by Atlantic Beef, the slaughterhouse would be able to offer this information in a snap.
"We're the only abattoir in North American that can do this at the moment," said Paul Arsenault, controller, Atlantic Beef Products.
Atlantic Beef, which processes approximately 500 cattle and produces more than 300,000 pounds of meat per week, is considered a small operation in an industry that has some outfits processing 5,000 animals a day.
With the advantages it achieved using RFID, Atlantic Beef now has its eye on an international market. Historically, the processing of beef – from live cattle to packaged meat cuts – involved the manual collection of data such as farm source, animal age, weight, breed and other characteristics.
Data is collected as the live animal enters the abattoir, is slain on the slaughter floor, quartered, chilled and then cut up for packaging. Government inspectors on the floor check for possible contamination and presence of diseases in the animals. Information such as beef quality, grade and weight is typically logged on a clipboard.
It can take weeks before all the paper work is processed and entered into the company's inventory and accounting system.
Even though every animal entering a processing plant in Canada must have a Canadian Cattle Identification Agency (CCIA) ear tag, it becomes difficult to track an individual animal once it has been butchered into different cuts and packaged in boxes.