Livestock traceability has moved another step forward after another $1.6 million federal funding, but industry remains uncertain of details, including how and when it will be implemented.
“A national traceability system is a win-win for Canadian producers, the value chain, and consumers,” Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz said in a release announcing the funding last month.
But before everyone can win, a level playing field is essential, said Jim Abel, president of the Livestock Markets Association of Canada. “We need market neutrality. Somebody can go to the country and buy the cattle and not have to read them, but they come to the market and they have to read them and we’re going to charge the producer $5 or $6, as an example, to read them and the guy in the country doesn’t have to pay that?
“Well guess what? The farmer is going to sell to the guy in the country and that puts us at a competitive disadvantage,” Abel said.
For true traceability every movement has to be recorded, he said.
“Or else you don’t have true traceability – what have you got? A hodgepodge system where two-thirds of them are recorded and the other third aren’t.”
Two traceability application research studies have been conducted simultaneously, one by the Canadian Cattle Identification Agency (CCIA), and one by the Alberta government. The findings from phase one of the CCIA study were released December of 2010. The release of Alberta’s data is imminent.
Abel says the technology is promising and has been used with great success on a trial basis at Stettler Auction Mart.
“We’ve been a pilot market here at Stettler since its inception, going on two years and it does work. We can wand cattle coming in and very seldom does it impede commerce. The only time it impedes commerce is when we’ve got a lineup in our fall run. And with a little work we could eliminate that.”
Caution is key, says Abel, to ensuring the industry doesn’t rush into traceability fully before knowing all the cost implications and the specifics. The Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) has not yet indicated whether auction markets will be reading the RFID tags on the way in, on the way out or both, and on all or only some animals.
“Until the CFIA or Ag Canada gives us clear direction on which way to go or what they want, it’s hard for the markets to proceed.”
Donna Henusep, project manager for the CCIA traceability research, says phase two tests ended at the end of March and the results will be released in June at the Livestock Markets Association of Canada convention.
Henusep said phase one was a proof of concept to identify whether these systems were going to work to the expected level of accuracy.
“Does this work to a level that’s acceptable? We found out that yes, in fact, it does. And it read to a global accuracy of 93 per cent based on no intervention from us at all. So what we did was move on to phase two, that being the integration of those systems with enterprise software.”
Phase two worked with the test auction marts to incorporate the scanning results into existing record-keeping software to provide an electronic trail. Henusep’s research only read the cattle in, and did not read them out after sale. She said no one knows yet what will ultimately be required of the auction marts.
“CFIA hasn’t made that determination yet, and that’s totally up to CFIA.” Despite some of the current unknowns, Henusep is confident traceability will work.
“I think that traceability at auction markets is possible with the right equipment in the right location within the facility. Phase two research documents some options and recommendations for moving forward with RFID systems at auction markets in Canada,” she said.
Many in the industry are anxiously awaiting the results of the Alberta study, which looked more comprehensively at implementation costs. Abel says the trial at Stettler also revealed quality-control problems with some of the RFID tag manufacturers, as well as with tag retention, which can often stem from incorrect placement of the tags in the ear.
“The producer needs to be educated on tagging locations in the ear for retention. And I think that’s happening, the CCIA is working with producer groups to inform them on the proper location in the ear to tag them.”
Abel said the tag companies need to be accountable to a certain extent. “We hadn’t been reading the electronic tags in Canada and now that we are reading them, we’ve seen the inferior product that they’ve been selling us and now is the time to make them accountable for what they are selling to the producer.”
Rick Fredrickson, head of traceability for Alberta Agriculture, says results will be released in the very near future. Unlike the CCIA’s project, Alberta tested reading the tags not just when the cattle came into the auction mart, but also to a lesser extent when they went out. “We did do some scanning out, just to test that procedure and what might work best.”
Fredrickson said they used a combination of systems including wide-and single-alley readers as well as catwalks and a long-wand system. He said the Alberta project read the tags of more than 300,000 head of cattle.
While the cattle industry has accepted that traceability is inevitable, no one is certain of the timeline for the auction mart.
“It’s imperative that we don’t impede commerce and industry standards need to be maintained,” said Abel. “We don’t know when they want full implementation. If they want full implementation six months from now, physically that’s impossible. If they want it two years from now, the installations could be done, but there’s a lot of negotiating to be done before the markets would agree to do that.
Abel wonders how much of the cost of traceability will be borne by government and the industry as a whole.
“Usually what happens is it gets thrown back into the producer’s lap and I don’t think the producers can bear too much more.”
“Ithinkthattraceabilityatauctionmarkets ispossiblewiththerightequipmentin therightlocationwithinthefacility.”
– donna henuset, project manager,