GREELEY, Colo. -- Long before mad cow disease took the spotlight in North America, Swift & Co. here, the third-largest fresh beef and pork processor in the U.S., was developing a comprehensive animal identification system that ultimately will track beef from the birth of the animal through the production process.
Officials at Swift said they are seeing greater interest from cattle suppliers taking a closer look at identification programs, as well as from retailers and food-service customers who want to know how the tracking system works.
Though its effect is similar to a U.S. Department of Agriculture-led animal ID system under development (see main story), the Swift system uses different technology. Unlike radio frequency identification used in the government plan, the Swift system doesn't require any implants. It uses a wireless scanner to scan the animal's retina at the time of birth and again when the animal is delivered to the processing plant. The information is recorded in a database. The system also can be used to scan more commonly used ear tags.
The Swift program has the ability to trace boxed beef back to the feedlot. Ultimately, officials intend to refine the system to the point where meat can be traced back to the individual animals, a spokesman for Swift told SN.
A number of cattle suppliers have indicated they're "looking seriously" at signing on to the program, spokesman Jim Herlihy said. The USDA's plans with respect to a cattle tracking program also give the company reason to believe traceability is inevitable.
"The industry is headed toward traceability one way or another," said Herlihy. "We got a year's head start. We've been testing this for a number of months already. We felt it was the best thing to do."
Starting next month, Swift will begin using the program itself on 300,000 cattle in the company's feedlots, but hopes to get its suppliers to use the system as well.
"We expect that'll continue to grow as we get our suppliers signed on," Herlihy said. "By the fall of 2004, we'll collect data on every animal we process, 5.5 million animals a year in the U.S. By summer of 2005, our goal is to have optical scan data on all those animals. It'll take a while. As more and more of our suppliers adopt the technology, the numbers of live animals scanned will increase."
Initially, what drove the company to pursue the technology was interest abroad, Herlihy said. Swift's customers in Asia were particularly interested in traceability programs. In researching various technological options, company officials concluded optical scanning was preferable to ear tags, Herlihy said.
"The optical scan is like a fingerprint," he said. "The optical scan is unique, and stays with the animal throughout its life. It cannot be lost like ear tags. They can fall out or be doctored."
Ultimately, officials at Swift would like to see the system used as a tool for narrowing the quantity of meat products identified in meat recalls. "When we add the next phase, we'll be able to pinpoint information based on animals and production lots in a much more targeted fashion," Herlihy said.