Agriculture group puts safe food tracking on the menu

In the wake of a North American mad-cow scare and the ongoing avian flu outbreak in Asia, Canadian stakeholders are busily brainstorming ways to implement a national tracking and tracing solution to ensure the country’s food supply is safe.

But industry representatives involved in

the consultation process admit that the massive effort, formed in Sept. 2003 and known as Can-Trace, could be too complex and expensive for its own good.

“”I think sometimes it can be easier (to come up with the concept) than actually put this into reality and make it work,”” said Julie Stitt, manager of the national ID program at the Canadian Cattle Identification Agency.

The agency already employs a complex tracking system that uses some radio frequency identification (RFID) chip tags (at roughly $5 per tag), as well as conventional barcode tags. Information on the location of individual livestock is scanned and sent to a central database. Movements of individual animals are monitored as they go from field to slaughterhouse to packing plant. The agency aims to move completely to RFID tags by 2005, and estimates the cost will come down when more bulk purchases are made.

Meanwhile, the poultry industry uses a paper-based system that tracks chickens by the flock, not individually, said Wendell Joyce, technical director of the Canadian Poultry and Egg Processors Council.

“”To be honest, our industry is grappling with the detail we need (in order to achieve interoperability with other sector’s such as cattle).””

Joyce added the biggest challenge is to keep track of a single lot (which typically comprises anywhere from 5,000 to 20,000 birds) once they are slaughtered in the packing house and “”their different parts head off into different products and packaging.””

Can-Trace aims to extend this tracking ability right to the shelves of grocery stores, standardizing all tracking systems for plants and animals in the process to make them interoperable.

“”Just to get from these packing plants and accurately track up to carcass inspection is a huge undertaking … and isn’t easy,”” said Stitt, who was going through audits at a large packing plant just the other day. “”Now to take it from there to the consumer … anything’s possible with enough money, but at what cost? And who’s demanding this?””

Pressure on the Canadian government to act comes from the U.S., which recently experienced its first case of mad cow disease. Talk of adopting a national tracking system has spread throughout Washington. U.S. lawmakers are now calling for such a system and Agriculture Secretary Ann M. Veneman has identified it as a top priority.

The U.S. plan foresees more than US$545 million in costs over five years. In contrast, the Government of Canada last month announced $92.1 million over five years to accelerate the development of an enhanced cattle ID program and increase testing for mad cow.

Talk of an RFID-based system is well underway in states like Vermont. Wal-Mart gave momentum to the use of RFID when it announced its intentions to mandate the use of the technology for its top 100 suppliers by 2005. Consequently, the company will spend billions to enhance its supply-chain system over the next few years.

“”Our market is primarily North American, so we have to make sure our standards fit with where the U.S. is going,”” said Stitt. “”Right now, they’re using the ISO (International Organization of Standardization) standard, which is consistent with what we’re using. That’s what Can-Trace has to look at.””

In a white paper on the subject, Can-Trace advocates the use of EAN International and UCC standards (EAN-UCC) “”to improve supply chain management and other business processes to reduce costs and/or add value for both goods and services.”” The EAN-UCC is considered one of the most widely used commercial ID systems.

Standardization presents its own challenges among different producer groups throughout Canada, said Stitt. Among the biggest challenge for Can-Trace is to ensure the overarching system, once implemented, interfaces with existing systems, and “”our people involved will actually use what Can-Trace is developing.””

“”We need to make sure people aren’t developing their own system. There has to be major buy-in from industry,”” she said.

Can-Trace’s long list of industry participants would indicate that a large majority of producers are on side. Currently, 150 industry associations are represented.

Currently, Can-Trace’s steering groups are running through “”worst-case scenarios,”” such as a recall incident, where food inspection authorities would need to access as much information as they can in the shortest amount of time at the lowest cost to retailers, explained Kelly Swinney, spokeswoman for the Electronic Commerce Council of Canada, the group that’s spearheading the effort.

Keeping capital costs low is another challenge. Can-Trace’s white paper said an RFID tag, which it pegs at $1per tag, might be cost effective to track a steer but would be cost-prohibitive for poultry.

Dan Lutz, national team leader on traceability at Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, suggested that once the system is in place, it will have the potential to “”generate a bunch of returns.””

Joyce added that a more detailed tracking system for the poultry industry could mean “”throwing out a single box”” versus “”discarding an entire truckload”” in the event of a recall. This, he said, would be the main driver for producers to adopt the Can-Trace system.

Lutz estimated “”tremendous business opportunities to do the software and databases”” for the system.

“”The task is huge, but it’s definitely an urgent matter. Probably the key thing is that we build a system that will work for the broadest group of people as possible.””

Swinney said consultations will wrap up in the summer, marked by a final report from the consortium of participating industry groups and associations. The federal government will use the resultant recommendations to decide which course to take, and what kinds of contracts to tender.

Comment: info@itbusiness.ca

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