Are we using traceability to its full potential?

Other countries extend traceability right to the packaging of meat so customers can find out what individual animal and farm it came from

piece of beef with Canada AAA stamp
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As I’ve been travelling this past year, I’ve been astonished by the level of traceability in processing plants abroad. I was welcomed into two plants, on two different continents, with open arms and fantastic hospitality with the only request being I leave my camera outside. Geographically these two businesses couldn’t be further apart but their similarities caught me off guard, their traceability processes are fundamentally similar.

I first came across this in Australia when touring what we would consider a mid-size packing plant (200 head per day). In Australia, they have a similar Animal Health traceability system called NLIS and they use a Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) tag exactly as we do. The beauty of the system happens after the animal is killed and the processing begins. The traceability stays with the animal throughout its journey through the plant and is continued all the way to the grocer’s shelf. The NLIS system tracks the animal until the tag is removed, then the plant’s own internal system takes over — the data from the kill floor, bone room, and packaging room all talk to each other and maintain the traceability component. The plant is required by the government to maintain this data for international marketing requirements and food safety. Carcasses are tagged on each quarter with information (including kill date, carcass weight, detention information, grade, and an internal tracking number linked to the NLIS tag number). A portion of this data is also transferred to the box label and travels with the product on the packaging to the retail outlet.

I came across a very similar traceability system while touring a plant in the U.K. This plant was in Northern Ireland, part of a large corporation with locations across the U.K., and processed between 400 to 500 cattle per day. The mandatory British ear tag system uses a double visual tag system with a 15-digit number printed on them. Sheep are required to use Electronic Identification (EID) tags but cattle are not, so these plants have to manually type in the number of each animal that crosses their floor. This particular company uses specialized in-house software to track data on the animals after tags are removed, with the tag number again correlated to a kill number assigned by the plant. This new number stays with the product until it is purchased, it is attached to each quarter with the same information used in Australia. It appears printed on the box label and finally on the consumer packaging during the final stage of fabrication. The tracking and printing of this information is required by the government, and “born in” and “raised in” data is required to be printed on all labels. Even grind is fully traceable back to the animal and therefore the farm of origin.

Both of these visits were excellent examples of how traceability can go beyond the live animal and provide authentic, meaningful information to consumers. While government regulated this in both cases, I was told repeatedly the domestic and international customer has been the main driver.

It feeds into the reoccurring theme I witnessed in every country I have visited so far — that consumers want to know where the food comes from and to be assured what they’re eating is safe. It really is a basic right to have access to that information. Even us as producers, we want to know that information, which is a significant reason why we consume our own product.

It really hit home for me while I was travelling in France. At my hotel near Borges, I came across a notation in the menu for the hotel restaurant: “Information regarding the origin of our meat is on display in the restaurant.” In the restaurant was a sign that had each cut of beef on the menu along with information on where it was born, raised, and killed. This is now required by law in all restaurants in France. In this instance each cut was born, raised and killed in France but the sheet could easily be updated when the supply changed based on the information provided by the processing plant on the product packaging.

Over and over again, I found myself wondering if we are putting ourselves at a disadvantage by not voluntarily tracking this data.

Some will argue that our international customers are not requiring it yet, and that is valid. Others will wince at the extra cost, the inability to keep up to the speed of commerce, or further imposition of government regulations.

But if we know our competition is providing this information and the customer wants more and more information as each year goes by, is it not better to voluntarily begin the process instead of waiting until our export markets get closed or the government forces it upon us after a food safety scandal?

I’ve also learned over the past year that no animal traceability system is perfect. Each country I have visited has very interesting and unique ideas on how it should look and what is required by the producers. Each country has producers who loathe their system and want what someone else has. The best we can do is work with what we have and learn from others.

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