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Uruguay's RFID-Based Beef-Tracking Program Tags 2 Million

The nation, one of the world's leading beef exporters, hopes to have all 12 million of its cattle tagged by 2012, though the initiative faces some challenges.
By Claire Swedberg
Currently, the system works like this: When a calf is born, a farmer attaches tags to both of its ears—an RFID tag for the right ear, encoded with the animal's unique ID number; and a visual tag for the left, bearing the same number. The farmer or a government auditor uses a Workabout Pro to input the animal's gender, breed and date, as well as the farm on which that calf was born, then utilizes the device to read the calf's right ear tag, linking the tag's ID number with the animal's birth information. All of this data is then uploaded to the government's official Internet-based database, where the records can be accessed via a password. When the cow is shipped to another location, the farmer or auditor reads its tag again and indicates that the animal has left that location.

A Psion Teklogix Workabout Pro with an Agrident AIR 200 RFID interrogator.

Thus far, the final reading of a cow's tag has taken place as that animal is being shipped to a slaughterhouse. "However," Pietravallo says, "the ultimate goal is that most harvesting locations familiarize themselves with this technology and manage the RFID readings on site." The pilot program has been working well, Pietravallo adds, without notable problems.

Eventually, the government hopes to continue tracing beef into the production area—where, once an animal has been butchered, large pieces of beef (as well as processed meat packaged for consumers) would all be given tags linked to the animal's original tag ID number. These steps, Audisio estimates, would not occur until several years after the first phase is completed, in 2012.

Pietravallo warns that the Uruguayan government still faces "huge cultural barriers" related to cost and the mechanization of farming systems—making it difficult for the nation to get all of its farmers using RFID. Currently, the government is shipping tags free to those using the system.

Following the pilot, the government intends to purchase about 1,000 Workabout Pro handheld readers, Audisio says. Each device costs about 16,000 Uruguayan pesos ($750). The government will purchase the tags and readers, selling interrogators to farmers as needed. The amount it will charge, or the length of time the tags will remain free, has not yet been determined.

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