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Canadian Beef Processor Deploys RFID for Food Safety

Levinoff-Colbex instituted a monitoring system to quickly identify and track any animal products from potentially contaminated or diseased animals.
By Elizabeth Wasserman
Jan 25, 2010—For decades, the Dubé family owned Colbex, a slaughterhouse based in Saint-Cyrille-de-Wendover, in Québec, Canada. In 1988, the Colas family, owner of Levinoff Meat Product Ltée, headquartered in Montreal, joined with the Dubés, forming the largest meat processor in the eastern part of the country. In 2003, the discovery in faraway Alberta of a sick cow diagnosed with bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), or mad cow disease, changed the course of history for both firms—and for the Canadian cattle industry.

That initial BSE discovery—there have since been 11 cases found in Canada—led to the slaughter of thousands of head of cattle, a ban on imports of Canadian cattle and beef by the United States, Japan and other nations, and a government requirement, starting in 2006, that cattle ranchers identify each cow with RFID ear tags. In Québec, the government adopted even more stringent livestock traceability requirements. It set up a not-for-profit agency, Agri-Tracabilité Québec (ATQ), which requires calves born on farms in that province to be RFID-tagged within the first week of birth, or before leaving the farm—whichever comes first. The tags can only be removed at the slaughterhouse, thus ensuring traceability from birth to death.

As the carcass is moved along a motorized rail, RFID tags are read to meet a Canadian government mandate.
Québec's ranchers, devastated in the aftermath of the BSE scare—because the price of a cow that could have fetched $1,300 had plummeted at one point to less than $100—sought greater control over the slaughter and processing of cattle. In 2004, the Fédération des Producteurs de Bovins du Québec (FPBQ), which represents cattle producers in that province, convinced the Québec government to purchase Levinoff's meat products business and Colbex's slaughterhouse. The company now operates under the Levinoff-Colbex S.E.C. brand, and the 375-employee firm is the largest meat-processing facility in eastern Canada.

To ensure traceability from the slaughterhouse through the meat-processing plant, Levinoff-Colbex deployed a radio frequency identification tracking system that was fully operational at the end of 2008. The traceability solution enables the company to quickly identify and recall any potentially contaminated parts within its facility, and to provide age and other certifications required by some foreign countries. The system could also minimize the scope of a product recall, thus reducing costs and protecting the company's brand and reputation. Epsilia, a traceability solutions developer and provider based in Trois-Rivières, Québec, designed the system using RFID technology from Motorola.

Thanks to the RFID system, Levinoff-Colbex is earning lucrative contracts for its beef. The solution enabled the firm to meet the stringent food-safety standards of Japanese importers, and in November 2009, after 18 months of negotiation and on-site review, Zensho Group, the owner of 3,900 Japanese restaurants, entered into an agreement with Levinoff-Colbex for the weekly purchase of meat from 200 cattle. The company will import only beef born and reared in Québec, and less than 20 months of age (well after the BSE scare). "Our selection criteria were food safety, quality and cost," Zensho spokesman Naoki Fujita was quoted as saying in an article about the contract, published in Les Affaires, a weekly French-language business newspaper based in Montreal.

"The tracing system helped us to get the contract signed," says Stéphane Dubé, a member of Colbex's founding family, who now serves as Levinoff-Colbex's quality-assurance manager. The tracking solution was initially designed to improve product safety, Dubé says, while automating a manual system of tracking carcasses that would ultimately reduce labor and save the firm money. However, he adds, it has also provided additional value, by allowing the company to be certified to enter new markets in Canada, the United States, Asia and South America. The company realized a return on its investment from the RFID deployment within its first year of operation, he says, from improving production efficiencies and increasing revenues—particularly from the Zensho contract.

The RFID system was deployed at the firm's Saint-Cyrille-de-Wendover facility. At the end of October 2009, the Canadian government announced it will invest CAN$9.6 million (US$9.1 million) to help Levinoff-Colbex construct a new processing facility next to the existing slaughterhouse. The company is currently in the initial planning stages, and has yet to determine how it will deploy RFID at the new facility.
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