WASHINGTON -- Significant progress toward improved beef traceability is being made both by state departments of agriculture and private-sector technology companies amid looming government regulation and industry concerns about foodborne illnesses like mad cow disease and E. Coli.
In conjunction with the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Meat Animal Research Center, Salisbury, N.C.-based technology supplier GlobalTrac this summer announced it had completed the nation's first perfect "pasture to plate" traceability test using radio frequency identification technology.
RFID tags were first administered to 27 cattle as ceramic pill-shaped "boluses," which the cows swallow in a manner similar to medicines, but never digest. The cattle were tracked via global positioning satellite through typical live-purchase procedures. At a major packing house, a specialized robot read the RFID tag, assigned a color-coded country-of-origin label to each carcass based on the animal's history, and withdrew DNA and tissue samples subsequently linked to the carcass and bolus numbers. After aging and portion cutting at a separate company, choice cuts from 20 of the carcasses were sent to selected Outback Steakhouse restaurants. A successful 100% recall of the meat immediately followed.
In packing houses, USDA rules do not allow carcass tagging until an animal has gone through several processes, including losing its head, de-hiding and cleaning, said David Ridling, president and chief executive officer of GlobalTrac. RFID systems that rely on ear tags, he said, face the challenge of re-matching animal ID's after those processes have been completed.
"The animal ID systems that are currently being touted utilize an ear tag, and we don't believe that's the way to go," said Ridling, adding that the likelihood of ear-tag loss ranges from 5% to 7% over the course of an animal's lifetime.
Yet this argument doesn't put an end to the RFID debate for packers and government officials, according to Paul Knepley, a veterinarian with the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture. Although he agreed that bolus-based systems had merits and that losses of the device were rare, he noted, "If an ear tag is missing, you can see that it's missing. If a bolus has somehow passed through an animal, how could you easily tell?" Pennsylvania was one of 29 states that in August received government grants to study animal identification as part of the U.S. Animal Identification Plan. The program's goal is to have all U.S. cattle fully traceable within a 48-hour timeframe by summer 2006. Knepley said that determining the best use of RFID was one of the issues the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture was examining.
In addition to improved safety, as deployment of the technology becomes more widespread, Ridling predicted a future where supermarket retailers could demand from suppliers improved confirmation that cuts of beef were sourced from specific breeds of cattle, such as Hereford or Angus, or from specific locations, such as organic ranches.
The government, in fact, is banking on such demands to drive these initiatives forward. According to USAIP's Web site, the USDA will consider the programs voluntary during initial stages of deployment, predicting that "market forces will drive the process toward full participation." The agency has said it will ultimately require full compliance from the cattle industry, although a timeline has not yet been set.