Canada’s cattle go high-tech using RFID

When a case of Mad Cow is found, fingers start to point. And because it has taken so long to trace the source of the disease, the impact of the discovery during the extended period of uncertainty is enormous. Not anymore, at least in Canada.

That’s because Canada is the first country in the

world to make radio frequency ID tags mandatory for cattle, a technology that will allow food inspection officials to more effectively trace animal diseases, such as Mad Cow.

The Canadian Cattle Identification Program was rolled out in 2001 to identify cattle for the containment and eradication of disease – and for food safety concerns related to those diseases. The program involved identifying cattle by means of barcoded tags. The goal was to create an electronic registry to trace animals back to the herd of origin. Information is entered into a secure database at the point of sale. In the event of a disease outbreak, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency has access to that database to track and stop movement of diseased animals.

But barcode technology has its limits.

RFID advantageous

When the program was initially rolled out, the goal was to be as cost-effective and as simple as possible, which is why it went with barcoded tags, says Chris Giffen, operations manager with the Canadian Cattle Identification Agency (CCIA). But the long-term goal was to move to RFID technology.

RFID offers improvements over barcodes in the ease and speed of record-keeping, the reduction of paperwork, the elimination of recording errors and the elimination of line-of-sight reading. In the long-term, the program will allow the cattle industry to implement full animal movement tracking through the use of RFID technology at the production, auction mart and packing plant levels.

It is more expensive, though. RFID tags retail for about $3, while a visual tag with a barcode costs $1.20 to $1.50. This has caused some concern for cattle ranchers, as they have to shoulder the cost of the transition. However, Giffen expects the benefits of the technology will outweigh the additional cost.

Easy maintenance

“”Barcoded tags on cattle get dirty, get wax on them, cannot be read, have to be cleaned, it’s labour-consuming, it takes time,”” says Clay Ross, regional sales manager with AllFlex, a manufacturer of cattle tags whose RFID tag has been approved by the CCIA. An RFID reader, on the other hand, can read through meat, bone, flesh, hair and hide. “”It’s basically maintenance-free when it comes to high-speed processing lines in packing houses, it just automates everything,”” he says. “”The animal could be jumping up and down and you could still read it. With a barcode that animal would have to be restrained.””

Tag loss was also a problem. “”Cattle are tough on tags,”” he says. “”The smaller the tag the better the retention. This is a fairly small tag with fairly good retention and good readability so you’ve got a happy medium.””

On Jan. 1 of this year, the Canadian Cattle Identification Program made the move to RFID tags mandatory; this is expected to further automate data collection and help transfer farm management information more quickly and accurately.

So far, the CCIA has approved six RFID ear tags for the program. Field and laboratory trials took place over the past two and a half years to evaluate retention, readability, insertion and pull-apart force, and freeze tests have recently been completed (the weather in Canada has made requirements different from, say, Australia). The tags are now available from approved tag manufacturers. The CCIA is recommending that all 2005 calves be tagged with one of the six approved RFID tags.

While the CCIA has stopped production of barcoded tags, it’s allowing existing tags in the system to be sold up until July 1. At that point, the board of directors will set a timeline as to how long those tags will be grandfathered.

The CCIA allocates identification numbers to a manufacturer, then to a distributor, then to a dealer and then to a producer.

“”That number can only be read – it cannot be written to, it cannot be erased, it cannot be changed, you cannot store anything in it,”” says Ross. But that number is “”a key”” that can be linked to other information, such as medical records. “”In the past, packing houses would give you back information, but it was an average of your herd,”” he says. “”With electronic tags they now have the ability — and they are doing it in some cases — where they will give you the individual grade of each animal.””

Web services

The CCIA is continuing to make enhancements to the program to provide additional services to the cattle industry.

“”The big one right now is age verification, being able to tie an actual birth date to that tag number,”” says Giffen. “”We have a Web site where producers can log in and validate themselves and then submit birth date information. That will be online by the end of March.””

The CCIA is also exchanging information with other countries including the U.S., Australia, Uruguay, Brazil and Japan on RFID technology and traceability. RFID is expected to become a universal standard, helping track cattle not only in Canada, but around the world.

It can also be used to track other animals, such as sheep, swine, bison and elk.

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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Vawn Himmelsbach
Vawn Himmelsbach
Is a Toronto-based journalist and regular contributor to IT World Canada's publications.

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