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Monday, December 8, 2008

Traceability in the Beef Cattle Industry

In recent years, there have been occurrences that emphasize the need for a program to trace the origins of the American food supply. In 2003, the first case of Mad Cow disease was detected in the United States. The cow was identified in Washington State and its origins traced to a dairy in Canada. This experience defined the need for a program to trace meat animals within a 48-hour period. In Reading, Massachusetts, a McDonalds customer found the tip of a hypodermic needle in her cheeseburger. News reports were circulating in November of 2008 that a woman in west Texas had contracted Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy (BSE) from infected beef product. The Texas Health Department later released a statement declaring these reports as only rumors. With reports of disease outbreaks and related events like these in the food chain, American consumers are becoming more curious and aware of the origins of their food. Beef is one of the major food products born, raised, and processed in the United States. The beef industry needs to implement an individual animal identification system that is functional for a nationwide traceability program, includes a form of electronic identification, and a system that is beneficial to all parts of the industry.

In the 2002 Farm Bill, the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) worked with Congress to create the National Animal Identification System (NAIS) to trace the origins of livestock within a 48-hour period in the event of a disease outbreak. The system established a program with individual animal identification numbers (AIN) and premises identification numbers (PIN). With these, the program should be able to track the movements of specific animals, other animals that have contact with or may be in the same lot as the identified animal, and identify the retail establishments that have any product from the identified animal (Brown 160-61). This includes trace-back and trace-forward methods. Trace-back is tracing any activity or movements of a specified animal from the birthplace, points of sale, feeding establishments, and any animals that had contact with the identified animal. Trace-forward is tracing the movements of the products from the indentified animal from the processing plant, shipping lots, and any retail and/or food establishments that may have indentified products. The design of the NAIS program ultimately establishes guidelines for identification systems that identify individual animals and any animals that have contact with that animal. The systems should then be able to trace movements of the specified animal as it is grown and processed, and trace any products originating from that animal in the retail market.

Closely related to NAIS is the Country of Origin Labeling (COOL) program. COOL involves the labeling of food products with the country in which the product originated. On September 30, 2008, the COOL program became mandatory for whole, raw, and unprocessed vegetable, meat, fish, and nut products. The COOL program is designed to build a brand around locally grown products and build consumer confidence in these. This program aides in identifying the sources of foods, but cannot be labeled as a tracing program because it does not individually identify animals and/or sources.

In the academic community of the beef industry, the need for an identification system is not debatable, but the controversy is over what should be included in such a system. Levan Elbakidze supports the need for an identification system by identifying several motives for producers from the implementation (170-71). He first touches on the fact that traceability could help prevent theft or loss of animals. This is especially important on sizable operations and locations where individuals’ animals are comingled. Record keeping would also facilitate producers in being able to identify animals of superior genetics. The additional identification of superior genetic lines would greatly advance the management of breeding programs. Selection of superior animals would lead to more efficient and uniform calf crops for producers. Elbakidze also points out the benefits traceability has on identifying credence attributes of cattle. This includes information on vaccinations, health, and feeding methods that could enhance animal value. Traceability enhances methods to control and rid herds of diseases. Identification of affected animals speeds the response strategies, whether it is a common herd infection, or major outbreak of BSE or Foot and Mouth disease.

There are drawbacks to the implementation of an animal tracing system. One drawback that has received a lot of attention in the production sector of the beef industry is the fact that cattle producers are very reluctant to incur the costs of such a system. The computer equipment, tags, and record keeping are extra costs that several small producers are not willing absorb (Elbakidze 171).

The beef industry learned from experiences that disease outbreaks, or threats of a potential outbreak, can wreak havoc on cattle, feed, and beef markets which are all driven by the demand for beef products. A system that will allow the trace-forward and trace-back of cattle and beef products will greatly reduce the impact of a disruption in the production chain. In his research, Elbakidze does a very good job of pointing out that “timely detection, isolation, and destruction of infected and high risk herds and animals” are the keys to effective management of a disease outbreak (169). Through his research, Levan Elbakidze found four factors that affect the decision to invest in a traceability system: “the likelihood of disease introduction, disease spread rate, effectiveness of such a program, and costs and effectiveness of any alternative mitigation options” (171). These four factors ultimately determine for the cattle producer if the program is worth implementing. If a program is developed in such a way that it addresses these factors, producers will accept it much easier.

A generally accepted definition of animal identification is “the combination and linking of the identification and registration of an animal individually, with a unique identifier, or collectively by its epidemiological unit or group, with a unique group identifier” (Smith et al 67). As G.C. Smith et al describe several aspects will be required of any technology used in animal identification (67). For the information to be collected and identification traced from birth to processing, the technology used must be efficient, repeatable and have a high read rate. If the system is not economical and cost-efficient, producers will not be apt to participate. There must be readily available benefits for participation to encourage producers to join the program, possible through the aid of government subsidies. Easy verification for identification technology is required. Due to the large number of ownership transfers, information must have easy access. Because of the large amount of information collected, any program applied should be accurate and precise.

Electronic identification is a prime option for an identification system. The use of electronics was not very reasonable for the industry just a few years ago because of the lack of wide spread computer use. Now that computer technology is everywhere, electronic identification is a possible option. There are three main avenues for electronic identification: RFID as a visible tag, RFID as a subcutaneous implant, and ruminal boluses carrying electronic transponders.

Radio frequency identification (RFID) technology is a good option for individual animal identification in the cattle industry because RIFD tags can be a part of the visual ear tag or in the form of a subcutaneous implant. The use of RFID in ear tags is very applicable to practices already used by a number of cattle producers. The negative aspect of the use of RIFD in ear tags is the low read rate and the number of tags that fall out of cattle’s ears. The cost of equipment to read and store RFID information is an important issue to many producers that are already stretching every dollar, and the outlook for government aid for implementation is not good. Private corporations like that of Northern Livestock Video of Montana are recommending the Verified Electronically ID Source and Age Program (VESA). In this program, producers send information of birth date and location to a state agency that in turn produces a RFID tag containing the information that the producer can purchase and apply on farm or at the time of first transfer of ownership. The animal can still carry the information of age and origin without constant monitoring. This removes most of the purchase cost of equipment to use RFID but still provides an avenue for producers to use the technology (Schuster 124-25).

However, there is the option of subcutaneous implants for RFID identification. Private companies like Digital Angels manufacture RFID chips that can be implanted in cattle for tracing and monitoring. The program collects information on origin, age, health, and location as it changes ownership. Programs like this require more cost to the producer but provide a more accurate “biography” of animal information that can be used to enhance health and breeding management (Schuster 123-24).

The use of subcutaneous implants with electronic transponders for identification would be a more accepted practice because implants are used widely in the industry for growth hormones. M. Klindtworth et al have studied the application and advantages of using these implants as a form of electronic identification and have found it very plausible. After looking at various studies, they concluded that the prime location for the implant is the cartilage scutiformis tissue, also known as the scutulum, which is a fat deposit between the cartilage of the ear and the head. This location is best because it offers a number of advantages. Compared to other injection sites, the scutulum offers mechanical protection of the implant and reduces damage to organs, loss of the transponder, and offers much easier recovery at the time of slaughter. The application of the implant would be simple because it can be done in a normal head chute. The injection site causes little pain to the animal because of the low presence of nerves and veins, resulting in minimal bleeding (66-67). The read rate of the transponder is likely be high from this location but depends on a number of factors: the kind of transponder technology, form, quality, and size of the antennas, field strength, positioning and orientation of the emitting antenna, and noise from the environment (72). Transponder readability would be a result of three factors: transponder failures at the time of injection, transponder losses, and transponder failures during lifetime (74-75). Injectable transponders may not be the best choice but they are one of the best technology options available at the current time.

Another form of electronic identification that has been evaluated in research is the ruminal bolus carrying electronic transponders. Ruminal boluses are usually made of ceramic and are administered to ruminants orally. Once the bolus is ingested, it is designed to remain in the rumen of the animal for a specified purpose: supplemental mineral release, slow release of drugs, use as a magnet to collect metal, monitoring of the rumen environment, or electronic identification (Caja 46).

There have been several studies to determine the best type of ruminal bolus to carry a transponder and each study leads to improved designs. G. Caja et al found in their study that the ruminal bolus is a successful carrier for electronic transponders and has a significantly higher retention rate than plastic ear tags, which is the normal form of identification in cattle (60-61). The three-year study by Caja et al used boluses that were proportional to the size of the animal. They found that ease of application, retention rates in the rumen, readability, recovery rates, and lack of broken or lost boluses found the bolus as a suitable form of identification in cattle (55-57).

Rather than studying the retention of ruminal boluses, some studies have focused on the effects of transponder-equipped boluses on cattle. C. Antonini et al performed one of these studies that measured the effect on “health and performance of cattle over a two year period, patterns of reticulorumenal motility, and in vitro growth and metabolism of bacterial populations in the rumen” (3134). Over the course of this study, they found that the ruminal boluses did not affect milk yield, milk fat yield, and milk protein yield in cows. There was no influence on reproductive traits, but a slight increase in conception rates. In young bulls, body weight gain was not affected, nor was mortality rate across all classes of cattle. The study did find a lower number of chewing movements and a greater frequency of regurgitations in bulls, heifers, and cows. In lab tests there were some effects from the electromagnetic fields from the transponders. The pH values were lower and had greater bacterial concentrations. Total volatile fatty acids (VFA) were not affected, but percentage of propionate and butyrate increased slightly (3136-7). There was some impact on the lining and mucosa of the rumen due to friction from the bolus, but the study showed there was no overall negative impact from the use of ruminal boluses equipped with electronic transponders for animal identification.

Whatever might be included in an identification program to aid in animal traceability, it will come with benefits to a number of producers, industry professionals, retail markets, and even consumers. The tracing of health and performance data at the production level will benefit producers with improved management of health and nutrition programs to produce cattle with better efficiency. Better health records will lead to less antibiotic use and this will lead to fewer injection site lesions in carcasses. Increased knowledge of nutrition information will lead to better feeding practices for improved feed efficiency. With individual animal identification, producers will be able to obtain carcass data on individual animals. This carcass data can further improve nutrition management. Carcass information can be used by producers to improve selection of superior genetics for carcass traits, something that cannot be done with visual observations prior to slaughter. Marketing options can be increased for producers that use this information.

Post-slaughter the individual identification of the products from an animal has great implications to the meat industry and retail markets. With traceability of products, the meat industry can aid producers in identifying practices that produce superior carcasses. From a marketing standpoint, the meat industry can use tracking information to provide retailers with information on origins of meat and specific breed types of meat products. Retailers and the meat industry will greatly benefit in occasions of product recalls by using traceability methods to identify the origins of the products and which retail locations where the products are shipped. Retailers will be able to locate quickly products in stores, which is especially important for inventory and recalls.

Most importantly, consumers will have big benefits from a traceability program. Consumers will have access to information about the origins of food products; where the products originated, in which facilities they were processed, and how long the products are in stores. Because consumer demand drives the industry, it is important to have consumer confidence in the American beef industry and its products.

This is a time in America where the human population is growing quickly, and food production must meet the demands of the growing population while managing decreased animal numbers and maintaining superior quality. To become more efficient in production the beef industry must develop an individual animal identification system to trace production and movements of cattle and beef products. The past has taught the beef industry that disease outbreaks are a threat to the industry markets and a national identification system will make tracking efforts more effective in the event of a disease outbreak. NAIS has opened the door for programs to develop and grow on a national scale, but there is a lot of organization that needs to go into such a program. For a program to be successful on a broad spectrum, it must be efficient, economical, easily verified, accurate, precise, easily repeated, cost effective, and have a high read rate (Smith 67). Mass producer participation is necessary to make traceability program function and government subsidies are probably needed to make this happen. Once the program is started and functional, producers will receive benefits, but they need that guarantee before investing in the technology. Electronic identification is definitely the answer for mass identification and record keeping, and it comes with a variety of options for producers: visual tags, subcutaneous implants, and ruminal boluses. Producers will have to voice their option on what is the best option for their operations. If the industry can unite to work out these preferences, a national identification will benefit all aspects of the industry, from producers to consumers. Levan Elbakidze stated, “The key to effective management of an infectious disease outbreak is timely detection, isolation, and destruction of infected and high-risk herds and animals” (169). That is what a well-organized national animal identification system will accomplish.

Works Cited

Antonini, C.M. et al. “In Vivo Mechanical and In Vitro Electromagnetic Side-effects of a Ruminal Transponder in Cattle.” Journal of Animal Science 84 (2006): 3133-42. Print.

Brown, Dennis E. RFID Implementation. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2007. Print.

Caja, G. et al. “Development of a Ceramic Bolus for the Permanent Electronic Identification of Sheep, Goat and Cattle.” Computers and Electronics in Agriculture 24 (1999): 45-63. Print.

Elbakidze, Levan. “Economic Benefits of Animal Tracing in the Cattle Production Sector.” Journal of Agriculture and Resource Economics 32.1 (2007): 169-80. Print.

Klindtworth, M. et al. “Electronic Identification of Cattle with Injectable Transponders.” Computers and Electronics in Agriculture 24 (1999): 65-79. Print.

Schuster, Edmund W., Stuart J. Allen, and David L. Brock. Global RFID: The Value of the EPCglobal Network for Supply Chain Management. New York: Springer, 2007. Print.

Smith, G.C. et al. “Post-slaughter Traceability.” Meat Science 80 (2008): 66-74. Print.