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Riding Herd: RFID Tracks Livestock

From the United States to Europe, Australia and New Zealand, governments are encouraging—some even mandating—the use of RFID to track livestock, so animals can be identified quickly in the event of a food recall or disease outbreak. But even without mandates, some farmers are adopting the technology because it delivers internal business benefits.
By Elizabeth Wasserman
Oct 05, 2009—Four years ago, an extortionist claimed to have fed hay tainted with foot-and-mouth disease—which is highly contagious among cloven-hoofed animals—to livestock on an island off the coast of Auckland, New Zealand. Exports of beef, mutton, wool, cheese and other farm products are a pillar of New Zealand's national economy, so the country had to test tens of thousands of sheep, cattle and other livestock, as well as alert international trading partners about the threat.

The scare proved to be a hoax. No sign of foot-and-mouth disease has ever been found in New Zealand. But it drove home a point to government and industry about the need for more effective protection of animal health, the food supply and the export trade. Today, the South Seas nation is poised to join the growing ranks of governments that are mandating the use of radio frequency identification technology to better identify livestock and track the animals through the value chain.

Fetzer Farms employs an RFID system to track the amount of milk each cow produces.

"It was a damn good exercise that highlighted a lot of problems we would have had if that had been real," says Ian Corney, chairman of New Zealand's National Animal Identification and Tracing (NAIT) project, an industry and government consortium formed in the wake of the scare. NAIT recently concluded RFID pilots on a series of saleyards and meat processors, and is preparing a business case in support of a government-backed RFID program that would go into effect in 2011 for the mandatory tagging of cattle and deer. "What we have at the present moment is just a herd-based or mob-based identification system. When it comes to actually tracking individual animals, it becomes very difficult because it's all based on a paper trail," he says.

For thousands of years, animals have been branded, tattooed or identified with numbered ear tags. At first, this was to delineate ownership of valuable animals, but after outbreaks of livestock diseases in Europe during the 18th century, some governments started requiring owners to keep paper certificates attesting to the origin of the animals and their health. More recently, there has been a push to move from a paper-based or bar-code tracking system to RFID, which is more automated and less prone to human error than manually reading plastic ear tags or trying to scan bar codes that may be covered with mud. This push for RFID has been prompted by growing concerns about food safety worldwide, whether due to potential bioterrorist attacks or the need to contain livestock epidemics, most notably bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), also known as mad cow disease.

Smithfield Premium Genetics tracks its pigs with RFID ear tags.

The adoption of RFID to track and trace livestock "from the farm to the fork" is expected to widen rapidly due to government encouragement and, in some cases, mandates. IDTechEx, a research and analysis firm, forecasts that the $462 million spent worldwide on RFID for livestock and farming in 2007 will rise to $2.6 billion by 2017. Certain countries, including Australia and Canada, now mandate the use of RFID to track cattle. The United States and some other countries are asking farmers to voluntarily participate in track-and-trace programs without specifying the type of identification technology that should be used. But voluntary programs tend to have less-than-stellar participation rates.

Farmers are more likely to participate in track-and-trace programs if they can realize business benefits from RFID-tagging their herds. Some farmers not affected by mandates are already deploying RFID to help improve farm management, achieving labor and cost savings. In Canada and other countries, industry groups are trying to foster the exchange of RFID-generated data between farmers and meat packers to increase insight into breeding, health and feed choices.
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