Keeping Track
By Lisa White
Much is being done in the meat and poultry industries to keep tabs on product in the event of recalls.
Both product traceback and animal identification rely on speed, efficiency, and most of all, accurate information. But that’s where the similarities end. While product traceback methods are used by meat packers, processors, and retailers to find the origin of contaminated product, animal identification is used by producers to keep tabs on live animals until slaughter in case of disease outbreaks, such as bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE).
“There is some confusion about people trying to correlate animal identification with product traceback,” says Mark Dopp, senior vice president for regulatory affairs, general council, for the American Meat Institute (AMI) in Washington, D.C. “Although there is some relationship, tracing back product is key for retailers and food distribution chains, including packers and processors. If there is a problem with a product, the company that produced it wants to find the product quickly and efficiently. It’s not concerned about the animals from which the raw material came from,” explains Dopp.
Efficient and reliable
With today’s technology, including bar coding and radio frequency identification (RFID), experts agree that both product traceability and animal identification are more efficient and reliable than ever before.
“The industry does a good job in its ability to trace product back, and recalls are the best evidence of this,” says Dopp.
Where product traceback is concerned, some companies have incorporated necessary information on packaging labels that identify the plant, date of production, shift, and even a time frame up to the minute when product went down the line. “We don’t poll members about traceability issues, but I’m certain there are AMI members who are doing things that they haven’t shared with us,” Dopp says.
The AMI is a big supporter of instituting a mandatory animal ID program. “It has been our position for some time,” he adds.
In the case of animal ID, the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association (NCBA), Centennial, CO, is currently working on a movement database to hold information for animal health authorities, relays Jay Truitt, vice president of government affairs.“Companies will be able to access this for instant reports on the movement of each animal. There are millions of head of cattle that are traceable, but not in the time constraints that we like. That will be a work in progress,” he says, adding that the association hopes to have the system up and running by the first of the year.
However, Truitt says this information gathering is only part of the    equation. “There is still activity that takes place on the ground with the application of animal ID tags and the assimilation of systems already in place. People don’t realize how much tracking work is done,” he says. Currently, 12 states have laws in place where cattle movement must be tracked using branding.
Another method ranchers are now utilizing is RFID systems, which tag animals’ ears with a radio chip containing detailed information on each head of cattle. “RFID technology is getting better every day,” says Truitt. “We’ve been working on technology improvements and testing systems at all levels of the industry since 1996.”
Unlike animal ID, which ends at the processing facility, tracing back processed product presents more of a challenge. “It is still complicated to figure out how to trace back every meat product in the U.S. because you’re disassembling animals and they are going through different channels,” says Pruitt. “What prevented us from making progress with this in the past was the high cost of the technology, but now we’re seeing prices drop dramatically. In addition, some retailers who want product traceability to be a part of their packaging have stepped up financially and said it will be a part of their purchasing decision.”
The Des Moines, IA-based National Pork Board (NPB) helps producers understand their responsibility to the industry from an animal ID standpoint. “It is important that our system works, and it does,” says Dr. Paul Sundberg, NPB vice president of science and technology. “The industry is segmented into two parts that work together. The packer/processors have the ability to track food within the production aspects of the pork chain, and the Pork Board is able to trace animal movement through packing plants. If we have an animal disease outbreak, we can find its origin.”
The pork industry has had an animal ID system in place since 1988 that tracks pigs as they are transported within a state and across the country. “In order to get paid, packers must first ID pigs by their lots when they come into the packing plant,” says Sundberg.
Currently, the Pork Board is working on fine-tuning its animal ID system to ensure it corresponds with what the USDA needs. “We want to meet the USDA’s requirements in an affordable way for producers, and there are a lot of options on how to do this,” says Sundberg. “Pork producers have to understand this need, and the system has to be affordable so it doesn’t put these companies out of business.”
Species-specific plans are key for an RFID program to work. “The price of RFID is not equitable if a $2 tag is put on a $1,000 cow versus a $125 pig. There is a significant price difference for these animals,” says Sundberg.
For the vertically-integrated poultry industry, animal identification and product traceability go hand in hand. “Traceability is not an issue for our industry,” says Sherrie Rosenblatt, who handles marketing and communications for the National Turkey Federation (NTF) in Washington, DC. “Companies have either a contract with a farmer or produce their own birds. When a flock of turkeys arrive at a processing plant, it is easy to distinguish which farmer they came from. Turkeys are tracked through the processing facility as they are packaged for distribution.”
Companies control their own supplies and do not purchase live chickens from multiple vendors. “The animals belong to the company, and they know where they are at all times,” says Richard Lobb, director of communications for the National Chicken Council (NCC), Washington, DC.
Although the NCC supports a national animal ID system, it acknowledges that the cost and feasibility of a new privately-held animal tracking repository needs to be explored. "One area that will need individual animal tracking is the live-bird market, in which birds from a variety of sources are offered for sale,” says Lobb. “This is especially important for controlling avian diseases, such as avian influenza [AI].
The Bozeman, MT-based Montana Beef Network uses RFID tags on feeder calves and cows to track them from the ranch to the packing plant and collects detailed data, such as vaccinations and origin information. The organization, which was developed in 1999 to help beef producers add value to their cattle operations, is working with the Montana Department of Livestock on a pilot project for national animal ID. “We have a number of projects examining different management scenarios,” says Lisa Duffey, project coordinator. “We are looking at large herds that graze on federal land and then go back to feed lots to see how cumbersome tracking is and if it could be done. We are experimenting with readers and doing RFID tag trials, which have been successful. We also are looking at tag retention to see the loss we get during this process.”
Many companies offer products to assist in animal ID and product trace back. Fitchburg, MA-based Lock Inspection Systems provides a software package and network protocol that enables a PC to be used to determine if meat products are contaminated with metal and diagnose where the metal is originating from. “Our Datachek program allows users to link up to forty metal detectors to one computer,” says Mark D’Onofrio, vice president and general manager.
CattleLog, a suite of animal information products and services from eMerge Interactive, Sebastian, FL, lets producers collect and manage individual animal information. “We only require electronic ID tags. These go on the animal’s ear and cost between $2 and $3.50 per head,” says Tim Niedecken, director of information products.
The company’s new CattleLog Age and Process Verified Program is USDA-approved and provides producers with a way to obtain on-site verification of age and source information.
High Point, NC-based Computerway Food Systems provides software and hardware applications that track raw materials. “Using the software’s programmable elements, users can determine by serialized records which cases or finished goods were produced, the time they went out and where they’re going,” says Bill Altenpohl, president.
“The key to recalls and traceability is putting a unique label, usually a bar code, on the goods. This gives everything a license plate. Yet, it is still up to the producer to tell the computer where they sent products. Nothing is fully automated yet,” says Altenpohl.
Ross Systems, based in Atlanta, GA, offers software that provides a comprehensive system of record that includes traceability. “Our program offers one up, one back capabilities for traceability. This means we can trace product one step back to suppliers or one step up to customers. If processors need to determine which raw material ended up in the marketplace, our program provides that information,” says Scot McLeod, vice president of marketing.
Auburndale, FL-based Colorado Boxed Beef, a provider of beef, pork, poultry, lamb, and veal, among other products, has had its trace back policy in place for more than 15 years, says John Rattigan, director, marketing and bussines development. This came in handy during a recent beef patty recall. “There was the potential for E. coli, so we had to produce a list to the Department of Ag detailing where the patties went and notify our customers. We were able to identify everything, because inventory is bar-coded for tracking purposes,” he says.
Colorado Boxed Beef has enhanced its traceback system over the years. “We’ve been analyzing and doing studies on RFID,” says Rattigan. “When this technology reaches an affordable level per bar code, we will work on our strategy. “
Rob Zeman, vice president of Colorado Boxed Beef’s Atlanta division, says the key points for any traceback policy are the ability to track each individual case and identify where it came from. “You also need dates on the case, as well. Our system is unique because each box has a different weight, so this is part of our identification process,” he says.
Having a traceback policy is a good selling point, and it helps in rotating products. The traceback system ensures that product is properly rotated. Because we track each case, our shrink is less than $1,000 a week, says Zieman.”
Catelli Brothers, Collingswood, NJ, has a complete traceability system for its veal, and it was awaiting USDA approval on a source verification program for its lamb at press time. Chris Douthett, vice president of sales and marketing, says, “We are one of two plants in the U.S. that are using RFID tags on an experimental basis with veal. This information is uploaded into a computer and sent to a national database.  Those one-hundred head of calves from an individual farm comprise one lot and are identifiable throughout the processing cycle. We can identify a package to the lot that will lead us to the farm it came from.”
The source verification program will follow Catelli Brothers’ lamb from the ranch of birth through the feed yard and packer to its plant.  The biggest opportunity is identifying the farms where veal calves are born.
Catelli Brothers’ lotting system is based on each production shift. “We are planning to implement the scanning of each carcass and grower lot as they are produced into primals. This will match against origin ear tags we currently have in place on each carcass for tracing the birth of the animals. On average our production lots consist of two to three growers,” says Douthett. The company’s lamb-tracking system is similar.
Truitt foresees a full-scale national system being implemented in the future that will provide 48-hour traceability on every animal moving through commerce in the U.S. “This will be not just for cattle, but for all species. We have made remarkable progress in the last year developing a movement database and mechanisms that will allow everyone to move forward,” he says. NP
Lisa White is a freelance writer based in the Chicago area.