Justin Sexten: Traceability Beyond the Ranch

The logistics of tracking over 25 wholesale primals per carcass side (excluding trim) through a modern processing facility into a box and through distribution channels is a monumental task. ( Wyatt Bechtel )

By: Justin Sexten is Vice President of Strategy for Performance Livestock Analytics

Traceability is in the news everywhere we look. The largest U.S. retailer recently announced an effort to enhance their beef supply chain transparency by adding a traceable product line. There were plenty of mentions related to the product quality and several value-added production characteristics based on how the cattle would be managed, but the discussion clearly focused on system traceability.

In April, USDA announced  plans to move to radio frequency electronic identification (RFID) for animals that require tagging as part of the Animal Disease Traceability (ADT) program by 2023. This will phase out the once common metal tags used for those beef and dairy cattle requiring official identification to move interstate (all dairy cattle and sexually intact beef cattle >18 months of age).

The USDA ADT program continues to remain technology neutral in what type of RFID producers can use to meet the new requirements. Whether high or low frequency they have not suggested a preference. Traceability efforts are moving forward and expanding technology will ultimately automate the process, minimizing the need to visually read the tag and correctly write down the 15 digit numbers.

When most cattlemen think about traceability I suspect they focus on the live animal, traceable from ranch of birth to harvest while most consumers likely consider traceability to encompass the entire supply chain from ranch to plate.

Harvest to plate traceability has received little attention. The logistics of tracking over 25 wholesale primals per carcass side (excluding trim) through a modern processing facility into a box and through distribution channels is a monumental task. Part of this challenge was addressed in a recent Translational Animal Science article from Tristan Foster and co-workers at Michigan State University. The researchers evaluated two methods of primal tracking to better understand traceability logistics and relative cost from harvest to the box.

Cattle were individually identified using RFID at the ranch and maintained through finishing at Michigan State. At harvest the RFID was transferred to the carcass. The novelty of the experiment begins here, when the carcass is broken into wholesale primals and sub-primals.

Working with a small processing facility the Michigan State team looked at processing either one carcass at at time (serial) or multiple carcasses simultaneously (parallel). A modern processing facility would use a combination of these methods with carcasses processed in serial order but multiple people working in parallel.

The challenge of tracking multiple carcasses simultaneously proved twice as costly ($18 / carcass) as serial processing one carcass at a time ($9 / carcass). This was due primarily to greater time spent tracking cuts and increased labeling costs.

As the demand for beef delivered to the table with attributes increases, the need for system traceability will also grow to verify these claims. The authors suggested the more labor-intensive  methods offer opportunities for small processors to gain competitive advantage by capturing value through smaller, specialized markets. On a larger scale more work is needed to automate these processes at a faster speed of commerce.

As traceability moves from value-added toward a market expectation, processors will continue to evaluate systems and solutions to address the logistic challenge. A small, but significant note, to this experiment is the cattle were traceable when they arrived at the harvest facility.

Carcass traceability has little, if any value, if cattle move through the supply chain anonymously. With the demand for traceability continuing to grow, now is the time to consider ways your marketing plan may benefit from a management system with traceability built in. 

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