MEAT TRACEABILITY APP
Many animal producers support establishment of a nationwide identification (ID) system capable of quickly tracking animals from birth to slaughter. While they believe such a system is needed to better deal with animal diseases or meet foreign market specifications, some consumer groups and others believe it also would be useful for food safety or retail informational purposes—and that the program should be able to trace meat products through processing and consumption.
However, despite years of effort on at least an animal ID program for disease purposes, many contentious issues remain unresolved. For example, should it be mandatory or voluntary? What types of information should be collected, on what animal species, and who should hold it, government or private entities? How much will it cost, and who should pay?
Following the first U.S. report of a cow with BSE (bovine spongiform encephalopathy or "mad cow disease") in late December 2003, the Secretary of Agriculture promised to take the lead in implementing an animal ID program capable of identifying all animals of interest within 48 hours of a disease discovery (BSE or other). The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has committed, through FY2006, $85 million to this effort, and all states now have systems for registering animal premises.
Some industry groups and lawmakers have criticized USDA for moving too slowly and/or not providing a clearer path toward a universal ID program. Others believe that USDA's progress to date simply reflects the deep divisions among producers and other interests over the many unresolved questions. A few livestock producers oppose any effort to establish broader programs, fearing they will be costly and intrusive.
The 109th Congress was asked to address these issues. A provision in the House-passed USDA appropriation for FY2007 (H.R. 5384) would have conditioned another $33 million in spending for animal ID on publication in the Federal Register of a "complete and detailed plan" for the program, "including, but not limited to, proposed legislative changes, cost estimates, and means of program evaluation." However, a House floor amendment to prohibit all ID program funding was defeated by a wide margin. A final FY2007 appropriation had not been passed by mid-January 2007, and USDA programs were operating under a continuing resolution.
Other bills included H.R. 1254, the National Farm Animal Identification and Records Act, H.R. 1256, to limit animal ID information disclosure, and H.R. 3170, creating a private Livestock Identification Board to oversee the program. The continuing differences over animal ID make it more likely that the topic will be part of the 2007 debate over a new omnibus farm bill. This CRS report will be updated if events warrant.
Animal Identification and Meat Traceability
U.S. animal agriculture wants to improve its ability to trace the movement of livestock from their birthplace to slaughter. Some advocates also want such traceability to reach all the way to the final consumer. Is a national system needed? Should it be mandatory? What would it cost, and who pays?
The livestock and meat industries have discussed these questions for some time, and an industry-government working group was developing a national animal identification (ID) plan for livestock disease tracking purposes. The group stated that the health of U.S. herds was "the most urgent issue" and "the most significant focus" of its proposed plan.1
National interest intensified in the wake of such developments as the discovery in 2003 of bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE or "mad cow disease") in North America, and ongoing concerns about bioterrorism. Debate over a law requiring retail country-of-origin labeling (COOL) for meats and other products also has fueled interest in increased animal ID capabilities (but was not a focus of the industry-government working group). In 2007, the need for, and design of, an animal ID program will be a topic during debate on a new omnibus farm bill.
This report covers animal ID and, to a lesser extent, meat traceability. However, traceability, and the somewhat different but related concepts of "identity preservation" and "product segregation," also pertain to other agricultural products (e.g., grains) and issues (e.g., genetically modified, or GM, crops; the labeling of GM foods; and the production and labeling of organic foods). Several sources cited below, including the U.S. Department of Agriculture's (USDA's) Economic Research Service (ERS) and Choices articles (see footnote 1) and a 2002 Sparks study (see footnote 5), cover traceability in more breadth.
What Are Animal Identification and Meat Traceability?
Animal ID refers to the marking of individual farm animals, or a group or lot of animals, so that they can be tracked from place of birth to slaughter. Many producers already know, and keep records on, the identities of each animal. In addition, many animals have been identified as part of official disease eradication or control programs. However, no nationwide U.S. marking system, backed by universal numbering and a central data registry, is in place yet.
Animal ID is one component of meat traceability. Traceability is the more comprehensive concept of tracking the movement of identifiable products through the marketing chain. An extensive form of meat traceability is the ability to follow products forward from their source animal (i.e., birth or ancestry), through growth and feeding, slaughter, processing, and distribution, to the point of sale or consumption (or backward from the consumer to the source animal). Traceability can be used to convey information about a product, such as what it contains, how it was produced, and every place it has been.
Animal ID and meat traceability are not themselves food safety, animal disease prevention, quality assurance, or country-of-origin labeling programs. However, they may be important components of such programs.
Reasons for Animal Identification and Meat Traceability
Commercial Production and Marketing Functions
Animal producers and food suppliers already have at least some capacity for tracing products. Many farmers and ranchers keep track of individual animals and how they are being raised. Traceability can help them to identify and exploit desirable production characteristics, such as animals that can grow more rapidly on less feed or that yield a better cut of meat. Universal bar codes on processed food, including many meats, are widely used for tracking. Traceability helps to coordinate shipments, manage inventories, and monitor consumer behavior. Some consumers prefer meat (or eggs or milk) from animals raised according to specified organic, humane treatment, or environmental standards. Traceability can help firms to separate, and keep records on, these unique products to verify production methods. However, in the commercial market, producers benefit (and will provide such products) only to the extent that demand exists.
Animal ID can help to track down more quickly the source of diseases in U.S. herds (or flocks) in order to determine their origin and cause, eradicate them, and prevent their spread. In the growing global marketplace, surveillance and containment, aided by a traceability system, can both reassure foreign buyers about the health of U.S. animals and help to satisfy other countries' sanitary and phytosanitary (SPS) import requirements. When used in animal health programs, ID and tracing systems are likely to have both commercial and regulatory dimensions. USDA's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) is the lead federal agency charged with protecting U.S. animal populations from diseases and pests. APHIS works cooperatively with foreign and state animal health authorities and with the private sector in such efforts.
USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) is responsible for protecting the public against unsafe meat and poultry. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) oversees the safety of all other foods and also regulates animal feeds. Both collaborate with APHIS and other federal and state agencies to protect the food supply from the introduction, through animals, of threats to human health, such as tuberculosis; the four major bacterial foodborne illnesses, Campylobacter, Salmonella, Listeria, and E. coli O157:H7; and the human form of BSE, a very rare but fatal one known as variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease (vCJD). Generally, when local health officials can link an illness to a particular product, firms and their regulators have been able to trace that product back to the processor and/or slaughter facility. It is more difficult and costly, though technically feasible, to determine which particular animals, herds, or flocks were the source of the problem. A rigorous traceback and animal ID system would not prevent safety problems (process controls, testing, and other science-based food safety regimes are intended to do that), but it could facilitate recalls, possibly contain the spread of an illness, and help authorities stem future incidents, according to some analysts. Besides building public confidence in the U.S. food safety system, improved traceability may enable firms to limit their legal and financial liabilities, it has been argued. Thus food safety also has both commercial and regulatory dimensions.2
Section 10816 of the 2002 farm bill (P.L. 107-171) requires many retailers to provide country-of-origin information on a number of raw products, including fresh and ground beef, pork, and lamb (produce, seafood, and peanuts also are covered). USDA was to implement the requirement by September 30, 2004; until then COOL was voluntary. However, the consolidated FY2004 omnibus appropriation (P.L. 108-199) postponed mandatory COOL for two years for all covered commodities, except farmed fish and wild fish, to September 30, 2006. Congress postponed it again, until September 30, 2008, in the FY2006 agriculture appropriation (P.L. 109-97).
Once the 2002 COOL law is implemented, meats labeled as U.S. origin would have to come from animals that are born, raised, and slaughtered in the United States. The COOL law prohibits USDA from establishing a mandatory ID system to verify country of origin, but it does permit USDA to require persons supplying covered commodities to maintain a "verifiable audit trail" to document compliance. Some analysts have concluded, therefore, that COOL could spur efforts to trace red meats back to their birth animals. (Poultry is not covered by the COOL law.)3
Existing U.S. Programs
Animal ID dates back at least to the 1800s, when hot iron brands were used throughout the West to indicate ownership. The methods of (and reasons for) identifying and tracking animals and their products have evolved since then and, as noted, are employed for both commercial and regulatory purposes.
By the mid-1900s, APHIS and its predecessor agencies were using tags, tattoos and brands more widely, mainly to identify, track, and remove animals affected by disease outbreaks. Current ID methods include ear, back, and tail tags; neck chains, freeze brands, and leg bands. Some producers use radio frequency ID (RFID) transponders with information that is read by scanners and fed into computer databases. For interstate swine movements, mandatory ID requirements have been in place since 1988 for disease control purposes. Most hogs are tracked by group, not individually, and most slaughter plants can identify the owners of the animals under this system. Sheep moved across state lines also are required to be identified.
Brucellosis is a highly contagious and costly disease mainly affecting cattle, bison, and swine. Once it was common in the United States, and uniquely numbered brucellosis ID tags were routinely found on animals, with information that they had been vaccinated and/or tested. Today brucellosis has largely been eradicated in commercial U.S. herds. APHIS also has eradication or control programs for tuberculosis, scrapie in sheep, pseudorabies in swine, Texas fever and scabies in cattle, and several poultry diseases, including Exotic Newcastle Disease (END). In each of these programs, APHIS has established rules and procedures to identify and track animals, herds, or flocks back to their origin, if necessary.
Government-coordinated programs have been established for other purposes besides animal health. For example, a voluntary process verification program operated by USDA's Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS) "provides livestock and meat producers an opportunity to assure customers of their ability to provide consistent quality products by having their written manufacturing processes confirmed through independent, third party audits," according to AMS. USDA Process Verified suppliers can have marketing claims such as breeds, feeding practices, or other claims verified by USDA and marketed as "USDA Process Verified." Other programs employing varying levels and types of traceability include the domestic origin requirement of all suppliers of USDA-purchased commodities and products used in such programs as school lunch and food distribution to needy families and institutions, and the national organic certification program.4
Need for Improved ID Capabilities
Together, the above activities might be viewed as a national ID system, but there are significant gaps. Generally, as disease programs succeed, fewer animals receive tags. The animal ID working group reported that fewer than 4 million U.S. calves (about 10% of the total) were being vaccinated for brucellosis and tagged (only female calves are vaccinated). Also, existing ID programs may provide only limited information—for example, not all of an animal's movements between the farm and slaughterhouse may be documented.5 None of the programs were set up to denote place of birth, analysts say.
Although U.S. regulators and producers usually can locate where a product was processed or the movements of many farm animals, it can be tedious and time-consuming, taking weeks or months in some situations. That's because the different animal ID and traceability systems now in place have been implemented independently of each other, may be "paper trails" which take time to follow, have divergent and sometimes conflicting purposes, and collect disparate types of information, according to industry experts.
The limitations of existing animal ID were tested after several U.S. cases of BSE emerged. The first case, in December 2003, was a Holstein dairy cow with a metal ear tag containing an identifying number. That helped authorities to more quickly trace its likely movements and origin, to a herd in Alberta, Canada. Dairy farmers often have more extensive information about individual animals for milk production, breeding, feeding, and related purposes.
However, six weeks later, U.S. authorities announced that they had ended their BSE field investigation after identifying only 28 of 80 cows that had entered the United States from Canada with the BSE cow. An international expert panel, asked by USDA asked to review its handling of this first U.S. BSE case, warned that USDA's failure to find every animal "is a problem faced by all countries which do not have an effective animal traceability system." It encouraged "the implementation of a national identification system that is appropriate to North American farming."6
Announcing the end of an investigation into the second U.S. BSE case (in a Texas-born cow that died in November 2004), Secretary Johanns again lamented the lack of a national ID system: the investigation "would have taken far less than two months" if a system were in place, a significant matter "because a number of trading partners have been reluctant to make decisions until the investigation is complete."7
Investigators also were unable to trace back earlier locations and herdmates of a third BSE case, an Alabama beef cow found in February 2006, at a time of delicate market-reopening discussions with both the Japanese and Koreans.
Development of a National Plan
Work toward a coordinated national animal ID system began in earnest in the early 2000s with the formation of the National Food Animal Identification Task Force, facilitated by the National Institute for Animal Agriculture (NIAA). This evolved into a larger, joint industry-government-professional effort whose principal goal was the ability to trace animals of interest within 48 hours of an animal disease problem.
USDA eventually assumed the lead in planning the system, and has provided funding toward its establishment. Despite—some say because of—USDA's direction, some livestock producers and their organizations complained that the Department was beset by indecision, progressed much too slowly, and/or had sown considerable confusion about what type of program was evolving.8 On the other hand, USDA's actions may simply have been reflecting the continuing divergence of opinion within animal agriculture itself over the best policy approach. A number of producers also were becoming more vocal about what they viewed as a threat to the privacy of their farm and financial records, particularly out of concern that participation in animal ID could become mandatory.
The NIAA-facilitated work by the National Food Animal Identification Task Force led to a draft plan presented to, and accepted by, the U.S. Animal Health Association (USAHA, representing state veterinarians and allied industry groups) in October 2002. USAHA next asked APHIS to organize a government-industry team (named the National Identification Development Team) to develop a more detailed animal ID system, using the work plan as a guide, including a timetable, for presentation at and approval by the USAHA meeting in October 2003. The task force utilized more than 100 professionals from approximately 70 agencies and organizations, led by an eight-person steering committee.
A "U.S. Animal Identification Plan (USAIP)" published in December 2003 stated in part: "Maintaining the health of the U.S. animal herd is the most urgent issue for the industry and is the focus of the plan." A key goal has been the ability to identify all animals and premises potentially exposed to a foreign animal disease within 48 hours of its discovery. The plan called for recording the movement of individual animals or groups of animals in a central database or in a "seamlessly linked" database infrastructure. APHIS roles would be to allocate premises and animal numbers, and to coordinate data collection, to be used for animal disease purposes only.
The proposed work plan envisioned by USAIP had first called for all states to have a premises identification system by July 2004. Such a system could identify individual animal premises (e.g., farm, feedlot, auction barn, assembly point, processing plant) and provide each with a unique ID number. Among other steps in the plan, all cattle, swine, and small ruminants were to possess individual or group/lot identification for interstate movement by July 2005. All animals of the remaining species/industries were to be in similar compliance by July 2006. USAIP stated that animal ID should be available for "all animals that will benefit from having a system to facilitate rapid traceback/traceout in the event of disease concern."
USDA Takes the Lead
As this last draft USAIP was being published, BSE was discovered in a Washington state cow. Then-Secretary of Agriculture Veneman announced, on December 30, 2003, a series of initiatives aimed at restoring public and foreign confidence in the safety of U.S. beef and cattle. One of these initiatives was to be the accelerated implementation of a verifiable system of national animal identification.
In April 2004, USDA announced its "framework" for a national system, and then transferred $18.8 million from its Commodity Credit Corporation account to APHIS to begin implementation. On June 16, 2004, USDA provided nearly $12 million of the total for cooperative agreements with states and tribal governments, to begin registering premises and to conduct research and data collection.9
USDA asked Congress for, and received, approximately $33 million for its animal ID activities in each of FY2005 and FY2006. Another $33 million request for FY2007 was pending in late November 2006 (see "Legislation" at the end of this report).
By August 2005, all states had the capability of registering animal premises; by late November 2006, they had registered more than 332,000 premises, out of an estimated 1.4 million sites with livestock and/or poultry, according to USDA.
The Department's National Animal Identification System (NAIS) "builds upon aspects of the USAIP and is the program that USDA is moving forward with in implementing national animal and premises identification. USDA will continue to seek industry input as the NAIS progresses," it declared.
USDA's First Draft Strategic Plan
On May 5, 2005, USDA had released for public comment a draft strategic plan, including timelines, for achieving a nationwide program. For example, the draft had proposed requiring stakeholders to identify premises and animals according to NAIS standards by January 2008, and requiring full recording of defined animal movements by January 2009. USDA stressed, however, that formal rulemaking would precede any mandatory program if it became necessary.
USDA's Animal ID "Guiding Principles"
With criticism mounting over the pace and direction of USDA's efforts, officials apparently modified their thinking on a national program. On August 30, 2005, Secretary Johanns announced four "guiding principles" for a national ID system:
It must be able to allow tracking of animals from point of origin to processing within 48 hours without unnecessary burden to producers and other stakeholders.
Its architecture must be developed without unduly increasing the size and role of government.
It must be flexible enough to utilize existing technologies and incorporate new identification technologies as they are developed.
Animal movement data should be maintained in a private system that can be readily accessed when necessary by state and federal animal health authorities.
This latter point was perhaps the most significant. It appeared to signal USDA's awareness of growing concerns among many producers regarding the collection and use of what they view as their private production information. Subsequently, federal officials revealed that they were now contemplating not a single tracking system, but rather "a metadata repository that USDA would develop and maintain; this potentially will allow us to work with multiple databases collecting information on animal movement."10 In the event of a disease incident, APHIS would send inquiries only to those databases with relevant information on those particular animals, officials explained.
USDA's April 2006 Implementation Plan11
On April 6, 2006, Secretary Johanns unveiled a plan outlining what he characterized as an "aggressive timeline for ensuring full implementation of the NAIS by 2009." The timeline included "benchmarks for incrementally accomplishing the remaining implementation goals to enable NAIS to be operational by 2007," the Secretary noted. As he had indicated in the past, the national system would be a series of state or privately held databases that USDA could tap in the event of an animal disease event.
USDA's Current Thinking
In November 2006, USDA distributed a draft "user guide," which, it stated, is "the most current plan for the NAIS and replaces all previously published program documents, including the 2005 Draft Strategic Plan and Draft Program Standards and the 2006 Implementation Strategies."12 The document seeks to assure producers that USDA will not require them to participate in the program, and that it is bound by law to protect individuals' private and confidential business information. The draft user guide describes three successively greater steps toward full participation, if a producer chooses to do so:
Premises registration, which can be done through state (or tribal) animal health authorities;
Animal identification, accomplished by obtaining USDA-recognized numbering tags or devices from representatives of authorized manufacturers;
Selection of an animal tracking database (ATB) that the producer will use to report animal movements.
Among other noteworthy aspects of the evolving NAIS, as described by the guide:
Animal species to be covered will include cattle and bison; poultry; swine; sheep and goats; cervids such as deer and elk; horses and other equines; and camelids (e.g., llamas and alpacas). Household pets and other animals not listed here are excluded from NAIS.
Animals that typically are moved in groups or lots—such as hogs and poultry—would not have to be individually identified.
Only animals that enter commerce or that commingle with animals at other premises (like sales barns, state or national fairs or exhibits) would be identified.
The ATBs will be privately held and managed.
Producers do not have to pay for premises registration, but they would be responsible for the cost of ID devices.
MEAT PACKING TRACEABILITY APP
The emergence of traceability concept is the consequence of a long line of developments in the improvement of food quality and safety management. In recent times it has emerged as a new index of quality and a basis for trade. Traceability is an interdisciplinary concept of promoting documented transparency in sustainable agriculture. “Traceable meat” means the meat is produced from an identified animal reared on a registered farm and has information pertaining to its origin and processing. Information includes the animal or batch of animals from which the meat originates, the farm which reared the animal/s, and the abattoir used to slaughter the animals to produce the meat. The availability of traceable information may help in building robust quality assurance systems. It also helps to initiate corrective measures at the appropriate stage of the value chain whenever a deviation in quality parameters is reported in the final product. Traceability has emerged as an important benchmark for quality assurance in the meat value chain in recent years. Several countries have implemented stringent livestock traceability system in last two decades. Key drivers for the implementation of traceability by different countries are control of contagious diseases like bovine spongiform encephalopathy and foot and mouth disease, and to boost the export prospects in international markets. European Union countries were among the first to implement mandatory livestock traceability system in 2000. Subsequently other countries followed, albeit in different formats. The identification of animals, registration of premises like farms and abattoirs, a database for uploading of traceability information, and provision for retrieval of information as and when required are the important requirements for meat traceability. This chapter provides a brief insight into the concept of livestock traceability, its benefits, and the mode of implementation of livestock traceability in different countries.
Increasing Traceability in the Meat Supply Chain
Pinpointing the movement of products is one of several important initiatives for meat and poultry.
In a bit from the cable TV comedy “Portlandia,” a couple orders chicken at a restaurant, and the server returns with a dossier, topped with a photograph:
“The chicken you’ll being enjoying tonight, his name was Colin,” she says. “Here are his papers.”
Today’s consumers are demanding nearly that level of transparency in their meat and poultry. And the technology exists to give it to them. Transparency and traceability are in great demand in food generally, and meat/poultry is arguably where the demand is most intense.
“The overarching trend, which has become more of a table stake, is personalization,” says Steve Hixon, strategic business services director at Midan Marketing, a meat industry consultancy. “Consumers want variety, a story, a brand to identify with and trust in what they are purchasing.”
The ability to track product as specifically as possible is important for establishing its wholesomeness, in terms of both safety and quality. Traceability allows microbial contamination and other situations to be pinpointed and brought under control quickly. It also allows companies to establish the bona fides of a variety of quality claims, such as organic and natural, and ones more specific to meat, like grass-fed, free-range and humanely raised.
These quality claims are becoming increasingly important. According to Innova Market Insights, the growth rate over the last four years for new products making various quality claims like grass-fed or cage-free ranged from 10% to 32%.
For processors, traceability is desirable in both directions in the supply chain: backwards to suppliers, and forward to trade customers and consumers. The idea is to assure each player that the previous one down the supply chain is delivering what was paid for.
Just BARE Chicken uses completely clear packaging to reinforce the idea of transparency.
Some meat and poultry processors have built brands, or even entire companies, around the idea of wholesomeness and transparency. Just Bare Chicken, a brand of Pilgrim’s Pride, emphasizes wholesomeness and nutrition for its lineup of organic and natural products. Transparency extends literally to its packaging, which features clear trays and overwrap for a 360-degree view of the product.
“In the past several years, we’ve seen an increased consumer desire for transparency in where their food comes from and how it was raised,” says Kelsie McEndaffer, communications manager for Just Bare Chicken. “This increased interest in food production ultimately drives consumers’ willingness to pay a premium for food products that provide that transparency and, at the end of the day, instill trust.”
In addition to being organic and/or natural, Just Bare products are certified as humanely raised by American Humane, an animal-welfare nonprofit. American Humane certifies 10 other meat and poultry producers, in addition to Just Bare, as meeting standards for air and water quality, adequate space and other quality-of-life parameters.
Humane conditions for animals constitute a quality category that is “literally on fire,” according to Tom Vierhile, vice president of strategic insights-North America for Innova Market Insights. New product introductions in the U.S. with some variation of “humane” in the labeling or marketing grew 32.2% between 2014 and 2018.
“This suggests to me that worries over how animals are treated may be a significant purchase motivator,” Vierhile says. “I suspect that worries of this nature may be a big reason why consumers are gravitating to plant-based alternatives.”
Plant Proteins Take Root
Plant-based meat alternatives have been around for a long time, but modern technology is making them more palatable and appealing than ever. According to a study from Midan Marketing, 21% of meat-eaters consider themselves “flexitarians” – eaters of plant-based proteins in addition to meat. And the meat companies are getting in on the act.
Tyson Foods, which sold its stake in analogue meat company Beyond Meat just ahead of its IPO, is nonetheless betting big on plant-based protein. This summer it rolled out Raised & Rooted, its own brand of analogue chicken nuggets, made with a blend of pea protein isolate and other plant ingredients. It also has several products that combine meat with plant protein, like Aidells Whole Blends -- fully-cooked sausage links and meatballs made with a combination of chicken and plant ingredients, including chickpeas, black beans, quinoa, lentils and barley.
Perdue Farms also has opted to combine animal and plant protein in Perdue Chicken Plus, frozen formed nuggets, patties and tenders that combine ground poultry with chickpeas and cauliflower.
“We realized that the world probably didn’t need another bean burger or soy nugget. These would likely continue to appeal to 5% of people on vegetarian diets,” says Eric Christianson, chief marketing officer for Perdue Farms."
"We wanted to address the other 95%, and the growing number of flexitarians, about 30% of people who say they are trying to get more plants in their diet and/or reduce their meat consumption – for primarily health reasons.”
Source of info
Quality, safety and premium attributes like humane treatment all depend on information flowing across all parts of the supply chain – starting at the source.
Smart Data Science Solutions supplies software and data-analysis services for the poultry industry, mostly oriented toward growers. It can analyze a flock using historical data and machine learning in a way that will let processors know not only how many birds to expect, but what to do with them, says founder Timothy Buisker.
“A processor could use the salmonella prediction to determine when to process a flock, or which flocks to divert from raw product to cooked (those flocks with the highest likelihood for salmonella),” Buisker says. “They could use yield data to determine how to process the birds – into full breast meat or ground, for example – and, if the processor also has some control over the live operations, could act to try to avoid an outcome they don't want, such as instructing nutritionists to change the nutrition package at a certain farm to bring a predicted low-yielding flock up to standard.”
Data also can flow in the opposite direction – from the processor to the consumer. Traceability technology, especially blockchain, is a way to establish a product’s bona fides in a way that’s not open to doubt.
Blockchain, briefly described, is a way to use encryption to set up an unalterable digital “ledger” among participants across a supply chain. Its major application in food to date has been for safety, because it can trace shipments of food down to individual packages, facilitating recalls and enabling the origins of contamination to be pinpointed. But blockchain also has the potential to set up traceability from processors to trade customers and even consumers, providing them with a heretofore unimaginable degree of confidence that a product is genuine and wholesome.
Cargill is using blockchain to create a link between purchasers of its Honeysuckle White whole turkeys and the farmers who raised them. Consumers can trace their turkey back to the farm by entering a code from select packages into the Honeysucklewhite.com website and clicking the “Meet Your Farmer” button.
“Our industry needs to understand blockchain and embrace the future of authentic and secure AI (artificial intelligence) product tracking,” says Hixon of Midan Marketing. “However, blockchain is only as successful as the data input. As purchase decisions both B2C and B2D (business to distributor) become more commonplace, secure and authentic transactions will be necessary.”
Potato Additive Improves Sausage
Meat consumption has always sparked nutritional concerns, especially with processed products like sausage. A new additive, based on potatoes, has the potential to improve the nutritional profile of processed meats without sacrificing taste.
Botaniline applies a proprietary cooking and grinding process to potatoes that increases their binding qualities, becoming “almost like food-based glue,” says Mark Celmer, Botaniline’s CEO. The mixture can take the place of sodium and other negative nutrients in processed meats, making them easier to form while cutting back on sodium, fat, saturated fat and calories.
Botaniline was developed in conjunction with Wardynski & Sons, a 100-year-old family-owned manufacturer of sausage and other processed meats in Buffalo, N.Y. Wardynski & Sons began using Botaniline for institutional products, including hot dogs it started furnishing to the Buffalo Public Schools in September.
The hot dogs with Botaniline are 110 calories each (35% less than the hot dogs the schools had been serving), with 360mg of sodium (33% less) and 4g of saturated fat (56% less), while being higher in protein and iron. And according to the school district’s foodservice director, the kids like them.
The company is now using Botaniline for some retail products, including its kiszka sausage, says CEO Raymond “Skip” Wardynski.
“Our kiszka is remarkably better now that we use [Botaniline],” Wardynski says. “It keeps all that good stuff right in there. I got guys who work for me that ate it their whole life, and they are stunned by just the taste and what that potato does, maintaining all those flavors.”
Cracking the code
Blockchain is one of the newest traceability technologies for food, but it’s by no means the only one. Established coding technology, properly used, can trace shipments down to the case level.
FoodLogiQ provides software that uses GS-1 standards with GS1-128 barcodes to achieve traceability across the supply chain, says Julie McGill, VP of supply chain strategy and insights. McGill calls traceability “often a blind spot for companies. Their ERP [enterprise resource planning] system may manage the production of products and identifying batches and lots, but they can lose visibility once these products go out the door.” One of FoodLogiQ’s most prominent customers is Tyson Foods.
Processors who want to use FoodLogiQ will often need to upgrade their information-handling capabilities. This can include both equipment, such as coders that can print and apply case-specific barcodes, and the capacity to store and analyze data like product number, batch/lot (or serial) number, case dates, quantities and other critical information.
“This is data that suppliers are already capturing today, but they may not be aggregating it or sharing the data in a standardized way,” McGill says. “Moving to GS1 standards streamlines this process, and using FoodLogiQ allows companies to visualize products across their entire supply chain.”
Tight labor markets have posed challenges in staffing for meat and poultry processors. Photo: Danish Technological Institute
Working on labor issues
Automation has become a priority across the food industry. A tight labor market means trouble attracting floor workers, especially in meat and poultry, where working conditions often tend to be unattractive – cold, wet, fast-paced, repetitive and occasionally dangerous.
Robotics offers a long-term solution, but many practical challenges remain, especially on the processing side. Tyson Foods made a long-term commitment to robotics with the August opening of the Tyson Manufacturing Automation Center near its Springdale, Ark., headquarters. The two-story, 26,000-sq.-ft. facility includes a machine vision technology lab.
Another processor going into robots in a big way is JBS, the world’s largest meat company. In 2015, JBS bought a controlling share in Scott Technology, a New Zealand-based robotics supplier.
The underpinnings of Scott’s meat-processing robots are vision, both camera and X-ray, and image analysis, says Andrew Arnold, director of meat processing. Because animal carcasses are not uniform, the robots have to be able to see, analyze and learn.
“Enabling automation in the meat industry, particularly around boning, has been around understanding the structure of the animal and being able to cut accordingly,” Arnold says. “We developed X-ray systems and camera technologies and imaging analysis which has enabled us to deal with the continually varying product.”
Image analysis through machine learning allows Scott equipment to deal with challenges like varying numbers of ribs in a carcass. “We scan it, and we analyze those scans with algorithms to determine exactly where we need to cut,” Arnold says. “We would train it as to where we would cut it, and then the algorithms would then determine that point on other animals.”
Robots often can cut meat better than humans, in terms of harvesting prime, high-value cuts with more flesh on them. In fact, the benefits from that can outweigh the labor savings, Arnold says: “The yield payback is far greater than the staff savings.”
Processors, retailers and consumers want meat and poultry that’s wholesome, reliably sourced, and handled as safely and efficiently as possible. A variety of technologies exist or are being developed to meet all those goals.
MEAT TRACEABILITY SYSTEM
Tracing meat and poultry from farm to plate is an idea that’s time has perhaps not yet come.
While tracking can potentially help generate large increases in category revenues, shopper loyalty and product safety, such factors as cost, privacy and complexity keep many producers and processors on the sidelines.
“There is limited progress with traceability and a long way to go as an industry to embrace the idea and find a way to implement it,” says Derrell Peel, professor of agribusiness and extension livestock marketing specialist in the Department of Agricultural Economics at Oklahoma State University, in Stillwater. “But it is an increasingly important issue that is not going to go away.”
A key obstacle is a lack of understanding about the need and value of traceability, along with concerns that government agencies will use the data to monitor industry operators, Peel says.
“Implementing any traceability system requires wiping away the illusion of anonymity, and that is a big hurdle,” he says, noting regulators already can track operator activity if they so desire.
Yet, traceability is important as consumers increasingly want to know how and where a product was produced, Peel says, adding that meat and poultry sector participants are “missing out on value opportunities” by not tracking the origins of products.
Traceability, for instance, can enable downstream cattle producers to reduce expenses by not duplicating the vaccinations that were previously given to animals and also determine the most appropriate feeding regimens for specific animals based on past activity, says Brian Adam, a professor in the Department of Agricultural Economics at Oklahoma State University.
He says many processors and retailers also are willing to better compensate producers who provide data on the product attributes consumers seek, such as being all-natural, organic and raised in a sustainable environment.
“That can encourage producers to provide more animals with those characteristics,” Adam says.
Lack of traceability also prevents U.S. operators from exporting products to many international markets and from potentially identifying the source of disease outbreaks and contaminated products in the quickest manner, he says.
While there are technologies to track animals from the farm to processing plants, it is much more difficult to then monitor the hundreds of meat and poultry pieces that can come from a single carcass as well as the multiple selections in boxes that often originate from different animals, Adam says.
Adding to the challenge is the need to link myriad identification systems, starting with the plastic tags on calves that operators often replace as animals enter feedlots, along with radio frequency identification and proprietary electronic technologies, Peel says.
Tell it like it is
Overcoming such hurdles, however, can lead to large rewards, particularly because shoppers expect full transparency regarding their meats, says Jarrod Sutton, vice president of domestic marketing for the Des Moines-based National Pork Board (NPB).
“Traceability allows us to say to consumers, ‘This is where your food comes from, this is what’s in it and here’s why you can feel good about eating this and serving it to your friends and family,’” he says. “If traceability can lead to greater consumer confidence, it should also lead to increased purchasing frequency.”
The biggest obstacle in tracing pork’s origin, meanwhile, is identifying animals as they move through processing plants, says Andy Brudtkuhl, NPB director of emerging technology.
He notes the NPB is working with the North American Meat Institute (NAMI) and several packers and processors to consider ways to solve the issue, including the possible use of DNA technologies.
“More people need to understand and appreciate why this is important and how traditional traceability systems are evolving,” he says. “The second step is to join consortiums and pilot projects to test how these new networks can work.”
Sutton says, “Brands would be wise to engage thought leaders and tech companies to assist them in strategic planning.”
A laundry list of requirements
A comprehensive system, meanwhile, must be practical, cost-effective and able to accomplish the intended outcome if it is to gain widespread acceptance, says David Moss, general manager of the Calgary-based Canadian Cattlemen’s Association.
He says there is growing interest in ultra-high frequency identifiers, which enable animals “to move at the speed of commerce with minimal human intervention” during tracking.
“The biggest cattle-tracing hurdle is overcoming the extensive, versus intensive, productive system,” Moss says. “Cattle graze on open pastures for the majority of their lives and managing the movement reporting is exponentially more difficult than for other proteins that are produced in a closed, or controlled, production model.”
To help meet the challenges, Canadian beef industry members are working closely with provincial regulators and the federal government “to find a path that will be both cost- and outcome-effective,” he says.
Among the technologies that track the origins of products, radio frequency identification and ultra high frequency are proving successful in the beef sector with electronic IDs gaining overall traction, says David Gregg, consulting projects manager for World Perspectives, an Arlington, Va.-based agri-food consulting firm and developer of a feasibility study on identification and traceability covering the U.S. beef cattle industry.
“Use of electronic tracking is improving and keeping pace with general technological advances,” he says.
Gregg adds the beef industry is increasingly recognizing the need to address animal and product tracking.
“This evolution in discussion is very important, particularly because of the diversity in the sector,” he says.
Traceability is easiest to implement in industries with more tightly coordinated supply chains because there are fewer barriers to organizing information and for companies to enter into contracts to exchange data, Adam says.
He says, for instance, that the poultry sector is typically more coordinated vertically than the pork industry, which is more tightly integrated than the beef sector.
The chicken and the egg
Yet even with a growing understanding of the benefits of animal traceability, implementation is slow in part because no specific party has an incentive to lead the way, Peel says. “While there are consumers who clearly want more information about their products, there is also the question of whether the shoppers will be willing to pay more for selections that have the necessary data, and if so, how much more.”
In addition, while technologies are available to support information transfer, such as distributed ledger databases, industry players may be reluctant to leverage systems that could enable all participants in a supply chain, including competitors, to view what many operators consider to be proprietary data, Adam says.
Cattle producers also may worry that a system will more easily enable regulators to trace an animal disease or a food safety event to an individual operator, he says.
Adam says another barrier to widespread traceability is concern about system inequities. Cow and calf producers, for instance, may see themselves as paying the highest price for a system because they are at the beginning of the supply chain, while perceiving the largest processors will receive the bulk of the benefits, he says.
“Participants must be able to identify value-added opportunities despite being separated by several stages in the supply chain,” Adam says. “It seems that a trusted party, such as a coalition of producer groups and processors, may be needed to establish relationships and build trust.”
Peel says it might take a major food safety outbreak, such as foot and mouth disease, to trigger development and adoption of an industrywide traceability program.