Is the traceability of animals a solution in search of a problem?
That is the question confronting the meat industry, and for most participants the likely answer is “it depends.”
The vast majority of the approximately 800,000 U.S. animal producers are small operators, many with just a few dozen heads of cattle, who find it difficult to justify the cost of identification systems in terms of both time and money.
Meanwhile, most consumers who purchase conventional proteins also give little thought to traceability, analysts say.
“My phone is not ringing off the hook with people saying we need traceability systems, and I can’t think of an argument saying we need more programs,” notes Scott Goltry, vice president of regulatory affairs for the Washington, D.C-based North American Meat Institute (NAMI).
Indeed, Dan Hale, extension meat specialist and professor at the Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service in College Station, says surveys reveal that only about 8 percent of consumers are proclaiming an interest in traceability. Those shoppers are primarily seeking foods with health-related attributes, such as meats that are natural and organic or come from grass-finished cattle.
Consumers seeking locally or regionally raised animals also often want to verify the source, Hale states. But those individuals are in the minority.
“Most shoppers are more interested in cost, and in the back of their minds they want to know if the animal was raised humanely,” he says.
Parties with perhaps the greatest interest in traceability are meat exporters who must have systems in place to comply with the identification requirements of importing countries.
Japan and other nations, for instance, have sought sourcing and age verification data as a result of food-safety issues. Because of concerns about bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), Japan, before loosening its standards, was requiring cattle imports to be less than 30 months of age.
“The feeling in the industry is that there needs to be an incentive for operators to implement a traceability system, such as a reward or greater product value,” says John Bulter, chief executive officer of the Beef Marketing Group (BMG), a Manhattan, Kan.-based cooperative comprised of 19 feedyards in Kansas and Nebraska. “Not having an incentive is a roadblock.”
He notes that Japanese importers would often pay U.S. packers $20 to $40 more for each head of cattle that was source- and age-verified. Such animals would be traced back to the ranch by U.S. operators.
Without such incentives, many U.S. producers are reluctant to provide data on their cattle. Butler notes, for instance, that some see traceability as unnecessary transparency and have concerns on how the data will be managed and if it will be kept confidential.
“The driving fact is that there is no monetary incentive for implementing a traceability system,” he states. “And we are not getting the signal that most consumers would be more satisfied with a traceability system.”
Indeed, he adds that if consumers were asking for more verification or source traceability, “the value chain would move forward with it.”
A boost for brands
A major trigger for traceability is the branded meat programs that often have claims tied to the brand that require verification.
Such programs include Wooster, Ohio-based Certified Angus Beef LLC (CAB), which works with more than 30 processing and packaging plants in North America and has 65,000 to 70,000 carcasses a week going into its products.
Certified Angus Beef has a natural line that it claims is developed from animals that are raised without the use of antibiotics or hormones and are only fed a vegetarian diet.
The CAB traceability system primarily consists of affidavits that create a paper trail to track the ranch of origin, and audits that verify the absence of antibiotics and supplemental growth hormones, says Mark McCully, CAB vice president of production.
Because cattle typically have multiple owners when moving along the supply chain from farm to plate, implementing a traceability system can be complex. Certified Angus Beef also uses cattle that come from a variety of environments, including mountainous areas and open ranch land, and requires traceability systems that function accurately in all conditions and are economically feasible, McCully states.
He says that, although it is important from a food-safety standpoint to have a program that pinpoints the origin of a product in the event of a recall, there is little value in adopting a traceability system, “just for the sake of traceability,” if it is not being sought by consumers.
In search of the optimal tools
Programs, however, likely will become more alluring over time as technologies become more sophisticated, resulting in the ability to efficiently gather added data, McCully says.
“There will be more capabilities, such as in the area of DNA,” he notes. “Expenses also will come down and implementing traceability systems will become more attractive. But there must be an incentive for participants in the supply chain to recoup their investment costs. There is no incentive if a system doesn’t provide additional information to the consumer or bring in a higher price per pound.”
Although a mix of identification systems are available, the most common vehicle is ear tags that are read visually.
Butler says Beef Marketing Group members are using a variety of traceability tools, including radio-frequency identification (RFID) tags and bar-code tags. A DNA system also is active at a packing plant that traces cattle back to the feedyard and provides data on the genetic makeup of better performing cattle.
Among Beef Marketing Group’s members’ brands is Braveheart Black Angus Beef, which leverages the DNA TraceBack system in which a sample of each animal’s DNA code is captured at slaughter and assigned a unique bar-code number. The DNA number is then linked to the animal and can be traced throughout the supply chain to the individual cuts of beef being served in restaurants.
Scott Holt, North American marketing manager for Allflex USA Inc., a Dallas-based animal identification company, says DNA, or genometric systems, can operate as marbling indicators. By pinpointing the animals in feed yards with greater amounts of marbling, which will likely produce higher value cuts, operators can determine if the cattle warrant superior, and more expensive, feed.
“Users can determine at birth if a calf is a high-value animal and then they can make a decision on how to manage it,” Holt states. “It can be put in the best pasture because it will make the most money, or it can be sold off.”
The system also can forecast the size of the animal when it is fully grown and verify parentage.
Is the price right?
Holt notes that the price of traceability tools can range from about two dollars for each basic ear tag and $2.50 to take a tissue sample in a DNA system, to $15 to $50 for a laboratory DNA test that determines the amount of marbling and reveals other details on the animal.
Although the availability of such traceability vehicles eventually will become more commonplace, analyst say the pace of change still will be dependent in part on the interest of shoppers.
The NAMI’s Goltry also predicts that more operators will gradually adopt traceability systems as they seek to deal with specific challenges, such as tracking co-mingled cuts that are merchandised together but come from different carcasses. Hale says processors targeting a wider marketplace also will adopt measures.
“We will continue to see more producers put in more systems to track cattle, particularly those that are looking to do business in international markets,” he explains. “Additional ranchers also are becoming involved in branded-beef programs, and that will also result in the greater use of traceability systems.”
Mild interest from consumers and the lack of a solid business case for many producers is slowing the expansion of traceability programs. But as technologies become more efficient and effective and shoppers see added value in verifying claims, the protein sector will become riper for added system rollouts.