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Tracking the journey from pasture to plate

Tracking the journey from pasture to plate

Imagine a leg of prime Kiwi lamb implanted with an edible Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) tag that has tracked its journey from pasture to plate. Imagine, too, if the consumer’s ‘plate’ could read the tag and thereby ‘pump out’ all sorts of information like calories or fat, details about the lamb’s ‘trading’ history and even food miles. Brave new world or merely the smart new world of agricultural tracking?

Last year a student at London’s Royal College of Art released this short video with the hypothesis: ‘What if there was a way to embed data directly into food?’

Said student, Hannes Harms, reasoned that by tagging food, his NutriSmart system would track the entire supply chain and ‘become a future medium between food intake and knowledge.’

New Scientist magazine questioned the safety, privacy and cost implications of edible tags under a ‘Chips for Dinner’ headline. The conclusion reached was that the idea is “a nice example of just how far we can take the concept of a wired world.”

Before you digest the implications and think the idea is totally fanciful, think again. Back in 2007, Eastman Kodak filed a U.S. patent application for an edible RFID tag with potential medical applications. And last year, researchers at the University of Florida developed an edible tag system called ID-Cap—complete with digestible antenna.

Come in 39: tracking options from pasture to plateHowever New Zealand backed away from embracing this brave new world in May when the mandatory national animal identification and tracing scheme (NAIT) was suddenly deferred—five months out from the November ‘go live’ date. Officials reasoned that Parliament was too busy to pass the NAIT Bill before the election, but industry players say NAIT’s back office infrastructure simply wasn’t ready. “We didn’t have anything to interface to” was the reaction of one equipment supplier.

The deferral came on the eve of the 43rd New Zealand National Fieldays where 117,000 visitors were surrounded by the buzz of exhibitors extolling the virtues of electronic identification (EID).

There was, not surprisingly, somewhat of a stunned hush with the push-back of the NAIT launch. No doubt the vibration will be back closer to November as New Zealand farmers come to grips with the benefits of easy data collection and better stock management.

A magic wand allows farmers to conduct lateral field trials

Allflex, the market leader in high performance RFID, says once the technology is embraced there will be no looking back. There are so many possibilities and permutations, says Australasian technical manager Nathan Stewart.

“Wool growers are using RFID tags to match fleece weights against animals as they’re being shorn. Again, it’s only just starting to take off, but the people using it see those sorts of benefits.” The next step, he says, will see DNA samples automatically matched to individual tags to refine breeding programmes and make drafting easier and more accurate.

Speed and accuracy are other by-products of tracking technology. Manufacturer Tru-Test says its latest hand-held XRS Reader (launched in August) has unprecedented speed, range and ‘read rates’, plus the ability to add comments or alerts against individual animals. Moreover, its new EziWeigh6 weigh scale is USB compatible for connection into PC’s or laptops and lays claim to being the world’s fastest at locking on to the weight of a moving animal.

“When you’re handling several thousand sheep a day,” says product manager Shane Dooley, “every second counts.” With a read-range of little more than a metre, RFID won’t help you find that lost sheep or heifer but Dooley says farmers could achieve ‘quantum gains’ in productivity by weighing animals more often.

“It is possible,” he says, “to change feed regimes and get target weights sooner. Or perhaps not feed as much to save money—by taking out the non-performers.”

Dairy farmers with a penchant for conducting orchestras will enjoy LIC’s specially designed EZ Link stick reader. With the wave of a wand, data from tagged cows can be linked directly to herd records and have barcodes scanned into milk flasks. LIC has also upgraded its popular MINDA software programme to integrate seamlessly with EID tags and readers.

While all of this may seem to some like more ‘toys for the boys’ (and girls) consumer demand is what is driving the rush for increased traceability.

A delegation from Britain’s Marks & Spencer (M&S) visited New Zealand earlier this year and called on lamb producers to become more environmentally friendly in response to increased awareness of issues like animal welfare and food miles. Using a new traceability management system, called M & S TRAK (traceability, responsibility, assurance and knowledge), the company plans to map its total protein supply chain and monitor the farm management records of suppliers. Literally if you don’t take this on board, go to the end of the queue.

Recognising the power of trends outside one’s direct control is one factor why corporate heavyweights like Fonterra were among the early adopters here with RFID tags installed on more than 14,000 vats to automatically identify the farms that their tankers collect from. Hundreds of thousands of plastic milk sample vials have also been fitted with passive tags for a complete EID-enabled collection chain from farm-to-factory-to-test laboratory.

In another part of the sector, Silver Fern Farms is introducing RFID product tracking systems from slaughter through to boning. ZESPRI is implementing the Xsense System to track fruit during storage and shipment from New Zealand to Asia and Europe. Active RF sensor tags have been placed in 30,000 pallets and Xsense will send real time alerts via SMS or email if preset temperature and humidity thresholds are breached.

Despite the opportunity to improve productivity, many farmers are not leaping piecemeal onto the bandwagon. Some still view the mandatory use of RFID as a compliance cost. There’s also a lingering perception that NAIT has chosen outdated and expensive low frequency (LF) technology rather than the potentially more cost effective ultra high frequency (UHF) alternative.

It’s a “sensitive issue” says Gary Hartley, the New Zealand secretary of GS1—the international not-for-profit standards association. GS1 has conducted a ‘proof of concept’ (POC) trial with ANZCO Foods and Rezare Systems which tracked a small herd of cattle, carcasses and meat cuts along the supply chain—from farm gate to retail outlet.

“I think we’ve proven beyond reasonable doubt that UHF does work in livestock,” says Mr Hartley. However he admits that there’s no commercial application around the world using the UHF form of RFID for tracing livestock—something he hopes he can correct. A “coalition of the willing” is being assembled to prove UHF’s effectiveness by tagging and tracking a large mob of animals for several months and Hartley is leading the charge.

“Performance is increasing, price is coming down, business cases are now being put together and the return on investment is becoming easier to identify” he says.

Another like minded group has swung into action to further boost the ‘intelligence’ of tracking systems. Silver Fern Farms, Landcorp Farming, PGGWrightson, Tru-Test and MAF have chipped in $151m to create FarmIQ Systems—a seven-year programme with the lofty motive to ‘create a demand driven integrated value chain for red meat that delivers sustainable benefits to all participants.’

These particular RFID tags may not be edible (just yet) but thousands of sheep, cattle and deer have been electronically tagged to monitor their performance from plate-to-pasture. Information on live weights, treatments, forage, yields, kill weights and grades is being gathered. Chief executive Collier Isaacs says FarmIQ also wants consumer feedback on things like taste or tenderness “to feed that information right back down the chain to the farm.”

A purpose built database will capture and analyse information which Isaacs says will be readily accessible in a designated ‘space’ called The Cloud. Needless to say Isaacs says the rural broadband roll out can’t happen soon enough. “The more you can put this stuff in The Cloud, the more efficient it’ll be for any manner of applications.”

One that is most certainly on the minds and mouths of producers and exporters is the ability to track all aspects of the food supply chain should a ‘turn to custard’ scenario such as the European E-coli outbreak happen here.

The European E. coli outbreak, which left more than 40 people dead and thousands violently ill last May, served up a grim reminder of how quickly disease can spread—and how difficult it is to trace. The image of Spanish MEP Francisco Sosa-Wagner in the European Parliament calling on the EU to “restore the honour of his national cucumbers” captured the passion and furor. This after hundreds of millions of Euros worth of vegetables were needlessly destroyed before authorities finally identified German-grown sprouts as the E. coli source.

NAIT says its ability to trace infected animals and properties quickly and accurately will improve New Zealand’s ability to respond to—and contain—the damage from biosecurity risks and food scares. However Dunedin company Oritain Global Limited says traceability systems alone have failed to ensure food safety.

Says chief executive chief executive Dr Helen Darling, “because they’re able to be copied, it doesn’t matter how clever your label or tag is, it just puts a speed bump in the path of counterfeiters.”

In response to this, Oritain is commercialising new forensic systems that look at the underlying chemistry or origin of food. The process analyses up to 49 different trace elements in parts per billion to determine an ‘isotopic fingerprint’ which can reveal whether an apple was grown in the Hawkes Bay or Central Otago.

Similarly, the Bio-Protection Research Centre at Lincoln University is also dabbling with isotopic fingerprints to help identify the origin of exotic pests by what they eat.

The latest trends and developments in origin and traceability solutions were canvassed at November’s GoTrace conference in Wellington. If recent enquiries are any measure to go by, GS1’s Hartley says New Zealanders do have a tracking fascination. “People have asked for ways to track things like lobsters, fish, and wine—to railway wagons and even ski resorts. Though this side of the trend is towards the weird and wacky, RFID will revolutionise supply chains and eventually replace bar codes as ‘the new normal’.”

In the meantime, and in a wired world full of acronyms, spare a thought for those who NAIT refers to as PICA’s—People in Charge of Animals—who have to decipher a technological maze of EID, RFID, LH, UHF, POC and M&S TRAK etc to find their place and space in the new normal.

THE NEW NO 8 WIRE
Information has always provided those who have it with power. In the case of agriculture being ‘wired’ already is boosting productivity. The passage of the NAIT Bill post-election will provide greater clarity on requirements farmers will have to comply with in terms of tracking and traceability. Already a variety of organisations have invested tens of millions of dollars on creating world-beating technology and trying to be first to market with their innovations. The sort of quantum gains needed to boost productivity will be just a mouse click, or wand wave, away once all systems are go.

This story originally appeared in Primary magazine. Click here to subscribe.