Is traceability the wave of the future for the U.S. pork industry?

Yes, say most experts. But how might it transpire is the bigger question. At this point there are only a few answers.

Let's start by defining traceability. According to Deevon Bailey, agricultural economist at Utah State University, "traceability is the ability to track the inputs used to make food products backward to their source at different levels of the marketing chain."

Although traceability is a relatively new concept for the U.S. pork industry, the Europeans have used it for years. Keep in mind that this action was hastened by the bovine spongiform encephalopathy crisis, the foot-and-mouth disease outbreak and the European consumer's resistance to genetically modified foods. To restore consumer confidence in their meat products, European livestock industries worked closely with their governments to develop programs that assure consumers the food they are eating is safe, notes Bailey.

"The real difference in Europe is they have a farm-level emphasis and third-party audits that are separate from the producer, processor or government," he continues. "These audits verify that you can trace products, and that producers are following certain processes. It's different than in the United States where we rely almost exclusively on government inspections of meatpacking plants."

Still, the Europeans have varying degrees of traceability as Brian Buhr, agricultural economist, University of Minnesota, found during his visits. He studied lamb, beef and pork supply chains; as well as poultry, egg, salmon and veal production systems. His objective was to document the supply chain production protocols, examine alternative forms of management systems and document different electronic traceability methods.

In all cases, the traceability systems extended from feed manufacturing to retail. Each system has unique production protocols targeting specific consumer attributes, such as antibiotic-free, organic or pasture-raised.

"The European traceability goals are to provide transparency to the production process, increase quality control through auditing and increase the opportunity to capture value from various production practices," says Buhr.

While the traceability systems revolve around a desire to improve information and create and preserve identity, Buhr identified other benefits as well. Traceability programs improved on-farm data collection; and supply chain coordination for pricing, ordering and inventories – specifically, it improved supply and demand alignment.

The three main components of Europe's traceability systems are: production standards and quality-control programs; certifying or auditing agencies; and management information systems (which are moving to Internet-based systems).

"In Europe, you can get individual animal information, but it's labor intensive. Also, the packers' line speeds are much slower," notes Buhr. "They are too slow to be realistic in the United States."

The question now centers on what type of system the U.S. industry will adopt. As Buhr puts it, "How much traceability is enough?"
For example, without any additional investment, the U.S. meat supply chain could trace pigs from packing plants back to individual finishing farms. Lot or batch numbers also could be used to trace most meat products back to the plant of origin, and even with a reasonable level of confidence, to the date the product was manufactured.

But is that enough? Buhr says that answer depends on many factors, including the costs involved in tracing products, the potential costs of a contamination event such as dioxin in feed and the costs of recall if a contamination occurs.

Those costs also are affected by the United States' ability to control a food-safety event given the quality control strategies available. This set of tradeoffs is what defines how much traceability is enough. So far, there isn't enough information to put a value on those tradeoffs, Buhr adds.

"Consumers aren't very willing to pay for traceability, but they are for other attributes like antibiotic-free or organic," he says. (The July issue of Pork will look at consumers' willingness to pay for traceability.)

Producers will want to know if traceability programs in the United States will pay. Buhr and Bailey agree that producers will benefit through improved data benchmarking, productivity and yields. Also, a traceabilty system could allow the industry to track yields by cut and encourage processors to cut products to more accurately meet demand.

Getting paid a premium by your packer is another story. So far, incentives have centered on food safety, but Buhr believes traceability will be driven via animal and public health issues, animal welfare, antibiotic-resistance issues and consumer pressure. Again, demands and costs will influence the outcome. For example, one of the European veal systems that Buhr studied could trace the meat cut back to the farm, sire, dam, feed ingredients and genetics. "It was very expensive, and I don't see it happening here," he says. "The industry will have to decide if it wants to take this level of control over its entire production system."

From the producer standpoint, Buhr says you need to ask: "What information do I now have that's valuable to the rest of the chain?" We have a grassroots information system, not a top-down system. The industry is accustomed to information being sent from the producer through the pork chain to the retailer, not vice versa. A traceability system would allow information to flow up and down the chain much easier.

One of the drivers in this area is the Internet, says Buhr. The web can offer the pork industry a common database architecture. "It takes individual benchmarking to turn it into a supply, branding and food-safety chain," he says. "Then, traceability becomes another technology to improve transparency in the system."

"We used to think of traceability as a regulatory issue," says Eric Hentges, research director, National Pork Board. "We have a higher trust in the U.S. production system and are able to look for quality," adds Hentges. Those are marketing positives, that focus more on product quality and consistency than safety, with an underlying health assurance."

For the pork and poultry industries, Hentges doesn't see traceability going back to the individual animal. Instead, he expects it to trace back to the individual housing premise. He believes that can be accomplished by individual producers, not just those in a vertically aligned system. Also, the technology for electronic identification will get more reasonably priced and available.

"The identification technologies are there; we can trace the pig to the slaughter floor," notes Hentges. "The trick is to trace groups of pigs to a particular box of product that moves on to retail."

Right now, Hentges says that retailers aren't getting direct consumer requests for traceable product. However, one thing retailers do want is the production process to be verified. This means consumers want to know something about where and how the pigs are raised, the type of genetics used, what if any antibiotics are involved and the type of feed.

"Traceability is technically doable," says Bailey. "But liability remains a stumbling block. Producers worry about having a problem traced back to them." However, it can also protect producers who are practicing safe production practices, that have records showing they follow certain procedures."

"Producers are the first link in the pork chain, and have always reacted to pressures sent from other parts of the chain," notes Bailey.

Farmland and Premium Standard Farms have the ability to trace their pork products back to the lot of pigs from where they originated. Smithfield also is touting its system. Bailey isn't aware of any other companies that are too far along in their tracking capabilities.

For the U.S. livestock industry as a whole, Bailey looks for some sort of traceability system to be in place within the next five years. He notes that the pork industry is embracing the concept of a standard tracking system, while the beef industry is showing some resistance.

If a traceability system is adopted for the meat industry, Bailey says it will trigger producer innovation. He believes a tracking system will provide niche opportunities for producers and smaller processors. For instance, he knows of a profitable lamb processor in Oregon that markets its products based on the ability to trace a product back to all of its inputs.

"People think, all of this 'just happens'," says Buhr. "The European system has actually been in development for a couple of decades, so we're playing catch-up."

Keep in mind, this is just the beginning. In the coming months, Pork will take a closer look at consumers' willingness to pay for traceability attributes, and at some of the traceability systems currently in place.

New Age Identification
A successful traceability program starts with animal identification. In the pork industry, this means evolving from methods such as ear notching to electronic systems.

Listed here are three examples of emerging electronic identification technologies for the pork industry. These "new generation" identification vehicles aid in data collection as well as individual animal tracking.

  • Electronic ear tag: Several companies produce radio-frequency identification button ear tags, which contain a microchip pre-programmed with an I.D. number.
  • Injectable transponder: These are small microchip implants injected under the skin. They are widely used for identifying companion animals, as well as by the salmon industry in the Northwestern United States.
  • Bar code: The accompanying photo is an example of a bar code used at an egg production facility in Germany.