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Beef Tracking, the RFID Way

Canadian beef producer uses an RFID-based system to monitor the processing of cattle carcasses at its plant, as well as the location of each animal's meat throughout the supply chain.
By Claire Swedberg
If inspectors suspect a problem with a carcass, they can condemn it or remove it for further inspection. A Psion Teklogix reader with an 8-foot-long telescopic extension allows the inspector to read the RFID number of the hook on which the animal is hanging. At that point, the inspectors remove the animal from the production line to be further evaluated, and a record of that action is created electronically.

The company also uses the RFID system to record the animal's weight, so that ABP can pay the appropriate amount to farmers, who are paid by the pound. The hook's ID tag is read at the point of weighing and the weight is then linked in the database to the animal on that hook. ABP employees then print a ticket with the animal's hot weight (prior to refrigeration), and its ID number in bar-coded form. That ticket is attached to the carcass. An employee scans the bar code on the ticket and enters grading information, and at that point the office can build invoicing data to pay producers. Without the RFID-based system, says Paul Berry, VP of software development for Merit-Trax, the invoicing process for a plant ABP's size could take four hours or more. For ABP it takes about 15 minutes, he says. Additionally, the use of RFID with bar-coded tickets "shows you can have two technologies cohabitating in the same environment," says Bob Aubertin director of sales and marketing for Merit-Trax Technologies.

RFID readers are also used to record data at the point of cold weight. This is when the cooled meat is weighed again before being packaged, to see if shrinkage has taken place in refrigeration.

ABP also uses the Marel system to track the meat that is cut up and packaged for sale. When the RFID hook drops the meat on the cutting table, the RFID reader captures the hook's ID number, and sends the animal number to the Marel database. The pieces of meat, and even trimming from that meat, are then associated with that animal. When the meat is packaged and boxed, a bar-coded label is placed on the box, and that label’s ID number is associated with all the animals that were the sources of that meat, Berry says.

Once a month ABP practices a recall drill, at which time the company keys in the numbers of several animals to determine if they can trace where all its parts are located, either in the plant or elsewhere in the supply chain. .

"RFID has been great for us," says Arsenault. "It makes the whole system more reliable." He says it has also reduced the need for an employee to be on the floor handwriting details specific to each animal on each hook as they move through the plant floor. Thus far, of 500 RFID chips used to identify the hooks, they have had to replace only about 12.

ABP is not the only beef producer to use a combination of RFID and bar-code technologies. California beef producer Brandt is using a 134.2 kHz RFID tags and bar-code labels to track cattle from birth all the way to the retail market (see Brandt Tracks Its Beef).

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