Meat lovers rarely ponder RFID technology or supply chain issues when they’re chowing down on a burger or barbequing a steak. Like a baton relay, a piece of meat passes through many hands before it lands, all neat and labeled and swathed in plastic, in supermarket freezers.
But things can go dangerously wrong. Mad cow, hoof-and-mouth, e-coli: such diseases have fueled food security scares in recent years. Public anxiety about the safety of meat as it passes through the supply chain is forcing the government’s hand. Beef producers are looking to RFID technology to track outbreaks back to their sources.
At the back end, the process begins with tracking cattle. Since 2001, under Canada’s Health of Animals regulation, all cattle arriving or leaving a farm must be identified by an ID number that appears in an ear tag. The regulation was introduced to track and contain diseases such as mad cow, which is spread via contaminated feed. Should a cow manifest symptoms of the disease, the ID provides a means to track its movements and identify herd-mates who may also have fed on the same contaminated feed.
A cow may pass through several hands in the course of its life, going from its farm of origin to an auction barn to be sold, then to a feedlot for fattening, and lastly to a meat-packing plant. Until recent times, beef producers used barcoded ear tags to track their cattle.
But the failure rate of barcodes can be as high as 20 per cent. Dirt on the animal’s tag can prevent it from being read properly, and the dangling ear tags typically used can fall off. To improve traceability, the Canadian Cattle Identification Agency (CCIA), the organization charged with developing a national animal ID system, is phasing out barcodes and introducing RFID button tags.
While the use of RFID is not specifically mandated under legislation, beef producers must use CCIA-approved technology, explained Julie Stitt, executive director of the CCIA. RFID has been tested and approved, and deemed more robust than barcodes, offering superior readability and efficiency. “Big packing plants have two people reading the barcoded tags, whereas with RFID, the animal can just walk by a panel reader and it’s read,” said Stitt. As a consequence, the sale of barcoded tags was stopped this year, and beef producers have until September 2006 to transition to RFID tags.
The total number of cattle in Canada fluctuates, but about five million calves are born every year, said Stitt. The CCIA manages the entire database of about 150 million records in conjunction with Clarkston Canada, a company contracted to provide system design, implementation and support.
In addition to the cattle, the CCIA also assigns an ID to each beef producer. Producers submit all the tag numbers for cattle associated with their IDs to the CCIA, and update the information electronically every 24 hours. “Once the cow leaves the herd, that number is tracked right up to the point of carcass inspection in the meat-packing plant. At that point, when the veterinarian inspects it and deems it fit for human consumption or condemned, that number is retired back to our database, so it goes full circle,” said Stitt, adding there is no mandatory requirement to track beyond the point of carcass inspection.
At the front end, many retailers are nevertheless looking at RFID to improve traceability and productivity in the future. But adoption of RFID at the back-end by beef producers is not a driver for retailers, who use barcodes to track their products. “If there was a significant scare at a supermarket chain, which would cause [consumers] to insist on traceable meat, that’s what will be required for a seamless network – a Wal-Mart-type player driving it through the supply chain,” said Kevin McGrath, CEO of Digital Angel, a St. Paul, Minn.-based RFID vendor.
Currently, barcodes are used to track meat once it’s carved, packaged and boxed by meat-packing plants. If a supermarket had a problem, the barcoded label showing the lot number and the production date would be needed to do a trace, explained Bruce Smith, director of corporate planning and development at XL Foods, a Calgary-based meat-packer. “If [the retailer] gives us the product label, we can use that to find out who else we sold the product to, and do full recall within 24 hours.”
Seamless traceability from cow to consumer would raise serious operational issues for meat packers. Carcasses come through in truckloads, and are processed by lot. “If we had a problem, we can trace the animal back to the lot, and get close to which producer it came from, but we can’t zero in on a specific animal,” said Smith.
At the boning plant, carcasses are carved into retail cuts, which are commingled on fast-moving conveyor belts. “That’s the point at which I can’t track the animal, but we can track the lot and timeframe,” said Smith. Ground beef, he said, would be a nightmare, as it may come from scores of animals.