Years ago, I was invited to a conference designed to look at long-term strategies for Canada’s ag sector.
Representatives were there from most major farm groups, as well as stakeholders in the agribusiness and processing sectors.
One break-out session in particular that stuck in my mind was on the meat sector.
I listened rather intently as Manitoba’s pork processors repeated how much the Manitoba pork industry could grow and improve if we would just get rid of the bothersome single-desk selling system. With direct contracting between the producer and the processor, they argued there would be 100 per cent traceability between the farm gate and the store shelf.
Ten years after the demise of single-desk selling, I still reflect on how our processing industry failed to keep that promise. Every pig that leaves my farm has my tattoo number on it. Every carcass that I shipped to Manitoba Pork and was slaughtered in this province, I was paid for based on a dressed carcass. Traceability between the shipper and the marketing board was always there. Where it broke down was at the slaughter house door.
The Canadian Pork Council is currently issuing news releases stating it is making major inroads into improving traceability with its Pig Trace program. What this program will do is track swine movement locally and inter-provincially via their tattoo or registered tag numbers. What we have today is what Manitoba Pork could have done with one phone call.
The only real improvement in tracing comes from large production facilities with multiple sources of animals from multiple provinces.
In short, what we have got in the last 10 years, is the part of the traceability that falls back on the producers’ shoulders, and not the processors.
Inter-provincial tattoo numbers, traceable tagging systems, increased book keeping for introduced stock has all been at the producer’s expense. Once that animal is slaughtered, we are no closer to keeping it tracked than we were under single desk selling.
The technology to track processed meat is as old as bar-coding itself. Since pork producers are required to have an inter-provincial tattoo number to sell to a federally inspected plant, that number could be coded into the cuts being removed from the graded carcass and recorded on a tag that would move with the meat along the assembly line. That code in turn, would be imprinted on the final packaging.
Processors will tell you that ground meat products must be exempt since they are constantly blended, but that is an economic argument, not a technological one. If the code was intermittent every two or three minutes, investigators would have a limited number of animals to search, instead of a day or a week’s production.
For most farrow-to-finish operators, it’s a pretty cut-and-dried question. What this industry has continued to focus on is inter-farm and inter-provincial movement of live animals, so what we have received is the part of this program that farmers finance.
What is missing from the equation is the processors’ ability to track the butchered carcass from slaughter to the store shelves.
If our respective pork councils were there to represent producers instead of industry, maybe we would finally move towards the true traceability our processors promised us all those years ago. Les McEwan farms