Holy Cow – RFID-enabled beef traceability a cut above the herd


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.

For instance, a six-pack box of steak could have meat coming from three different animals.

Conventional tagging allowed for tracing products only to the lot of cattle that arrived at the facility on a certain day or the batch of carcasses processed at a certain hour.

The system developed by Psion and Merit Trax employs a wireless radio frequency (RF) network, RFID tags, handheld and stationary scanners that capture real-time data from the entry gate to kill floor, cutting room and warehouse.

“One of our challenges was to produce readers that could withstand the -30 c temperatures in the freezers and the wet environment of wash down facilities,” said Greg Evans, channel sales manager, Psion Teklogix.

Special software manages and integrates the data flowing between RFID readers, barcode scanners, weigh scales, label printers and other devices involved in the processing. A complete set of data on every animal is stored in the plant’s database.

A positive offshoot is that this automation benefits farmers who are only paid for their produce only after abattoirs have slaughtered and graded the cattle.

“The wait use to take days, but with the new software data is processed and receipts are printed within minutes,” said Bob Aubertin, director of sales and marketing, Merit-Trax Technologies.

Aside from enabling the plant to adhere to beef-production safety standards, RFID technology can also be used to tweak business strategies to enhance revenues, according to Paul Berry, vice-president of software development, Merit-Trax Technologies.

“Full traceability provides data on which type of animal or cut sells better or faster,” said Berry.

When reports of bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) disease in cattle broke out several years ago, nations around the world put up strict traceability guidelines. Several countries even placed a ban on Canadian beef.

According to Arsenault, Atlantic Beef is now planning to move into the lucrative market of offals or cattle internal organs in Asia where several countries have banned Canadian beef.

“This new system opens the door for Atlantic Beef to international markets,” said Arsenault.

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