Having a fully traceable pork chain sounds intriguing, but how might it evolve? For now, the answer may lie with DNA.

Simply put, DNA is the genetic makeup of the pig. Since each animal’s DNA is unique, it offers a sort of fingerprinting opportunity, which makes it an appealing option for traceability.

Other types of traceability systems are currently available, such as bar codes and digital animal implants, but identity stops once the carcass is cut up. Whereas DNA is one test that can trace the product from the consumer’s plate back to the point of origin.

Some companies and producers have started moving in this direction, incorporating it into their process-verified systems. Now, the country-of-origin labeling law is pushing the process a step further and faster.

For example, PIC, with the help of its parent company, Sygen International, uses specific segments of DNA (markers) for its identity preservation system called VeriSpec.  It allows PIC to verify that pork products come directly from Berkshire hogs for its Japanese customers. The breed ID system is based on the identification of DNA markers that explain specific characteristics, such as coat color.

The next step for PIC is to assist its customers to commercially implement a DNA traceability system in the pork chain. The company has conducted some pilot studies with its producer customers to determine the best way to implement the program. There is no timetable for introducing the program as of yet.

“DNA traceability is particularly suitable for people to monitor process control, and for companies that want to trace branded meat,” says Alan Mileham, molecular biology research manager for Sygen International.

Mileham adds that DNA-based traceability systems already are being used in some beef programs.

Why use DNA? A big plus is increased food safety monitoring. For instance, if a product were found to contain a foodborne pathogen, that product could be traced back through the pork chain.

Another reason is brand preservation. “The first step is with the brand owner,” says Guy Prall, PIC’s director of technology transfer. The owner has to see the value in the process and what it adds to the end product.

He cites an example: Several years ago, Berkshire pork producers in Japan were concerned that there was more Berkshire-labeled pork on the market than they were actually producing. To get a handle on this situation, the Japanese government and meat importers installed a test to randomly sample Japanese pork labeled as Berkshire. The immediate effect was that it sorted out true Berkshire pork from others. It increased the price of true Berkshire pork, easily paying for the increased cost of DNA testing.

“This test was a signal to the market that brand owners have a tool to protect their brand,” adds Prall. The test costs about $270 per sample tested in Japan. However, he doesn’t anticipate the costs to be quite as high if a similar program were instituted in the United States.

The United States’ competitors are looking into DNA. Canada’s largest meat-processing company – Maple Leaf Foods – already provides partial traceability through its process-verified program. Now it’s looking for more.

“Traceability has become the holy grail of the food-supply chain,” says Michael McCain, Maple Leaf Foods’ chief executive officer. “We need to leverage our excellent reputation, make our point of differentiation in quality and food safety more pronounced and position food ‘Made in Canada’ as something akin to ‘German automobiles’ or ‘New Zealand lamb,’ worthy of even more price premiums.”

Like PIC, McCain says Japanese meat buyers introduced him to traceability.

“In pursuit of full-scale traceability, Maple Leaf is funding DNA identification technologies to trace meat back to the farm of origin and through every link of the chain,” says McCain. This process involves developing up to 300 genes to use to identify the pig’s unique identity. He says Maple Leaf is within 24 months of making this a reality.   

“Currently, no country in the world has capabilities and regulatory systems in place to provide full traceability of food products,” adds McCain.

He contends that his proposed level of traceability would distinguish Canadian meat products from others in the global market. “It would be a point of difference in food safety that could set us apart and make a mandatory declaration of ‘country of origin’, something we would aspire to, not be afraid of,” he continues.

Implementing a DNA tracking system could give Canada a competitive edge over some of its competitors in the export market – which includes the United States.

Where does this leave the U.S. pork industry? A DNA traceability system may seem futuristic, but it could be closer than you think.

U.S. Sen. Charles Schumer (D-NY) introduced a bill to amend the Federal Meat Inspection Act and the Poultry Products Inspection Act to improve the safety of meat and poultry products.

Among other things, this amendment would require the government to set up a system to trace all hogs, cattle, sheep and                   poultry to the farm.

Congressional and election activities have pushed this bill to the back burner, but National Pork Producers Council officials anticipate that Schumer will re-introduce the legislation in early 2003. Whether it goes much further is another question.

NPPC president-elect, Jon Caspers, contends that consumer demand will determine the need for this type of traceable system.

He adds that if the government institutes a mandatory traceback system, it needs to have answers for producers and other links of the pork chain on how to correct problems. If there aren’t any answers, it will have a negative impact on pork production and producers because they are powerless to correct problems.

A common producer concern is that a traceback system would drop any food-safety problem on their shoulders. The National Cattlemen’s Beef Association contends that producers can’t defend themselves in court as well as packers and processors due to the high cost of litigation.              

Another problem is economics. Mileham notes that DNA tracing in beef is more cost-effective than in pork because there’s more meat per carcass. “This means that developing a cost-effective, DNA-based traceability system for pork will be more challenging,” he adds. 

DNA analysis is well understood. You can use any piece of tissue from the animal containing DNA. It can come from the ear, tail, blood or semen. Mileham notes the challenge is getting the cost for sample collection, storage and genotyping multiple markers in line with the value of pigs.

Unfortunately, for some systems it may take a large number of DNA markers to answer the questions being asked. The trick, contends Mileham, is to put markers together to make the process more economical.

Max Rothschild, Iowa State University geneticist, equates storing the DNA samples with an insurance policy –  you’re covered whether or not you need to use it. “If a crisis occurs, you’re protected,” he adds. “Storing a sample is relatively cheap. It only becomes expensive when you have to go through the tracing process.”

Prall agrees. “In some shape or form, traceability will happen in the U.S. pork industry.”