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Walk into a Jusco supermarket in Yamato, a small city near Tokyo, Japan, and you can glimpse the future of meat. In addition to a conventional bar code, each steak package sports its own ID number. Type the number into the computer sitting on a nearby table, and up pops information about the cow the steak came from: a scanned copy of its negative test result for mad-cow disease and, in case you are interested, its breed and sex, its date of slaughter, and the name of the producer. At some Japanese meat-counter displays, you’ll even see a picture of the family that raised the animal.

All this information is available because the steaks come from Japanese cattle that have been individually tracked from birth, generally with radio frequency identification (RFID) tags; each of the cows has an ID number correlated with a database entry that documents its birth date, medical history, and movements from feedlot to slaughter, and the results of mandatory mad-cow tests. At slaughter, the ID numbers, and all data linked to those numbers, are passed on to individual boxes of meat.

It’s the future of the meat industry, perhaps, but still a far cry from how things are done in the United States, where few of the 96 million cattle scattered across 800,000 ranches and feedlots are subject to comprehensive electronic digital record keeping. Indeed, fewer than 5 percent are electronically tracked from birth to slaughter, and even then, the identifying information is generally lost during the processing of the meat. “Certainly, at the steak level, you literally don’t have any idea of where that animal might have come from,” says Geoffrey Dahl, a professor of animal science at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

All that could be about to change, however, as the U.S. meat industry faces immense pressures to update its antiquated practices. The wake-up call was the finding of mad-cow disease in Washington State late last year. The federal government took four days to determine where the sick Holstein came from, which didn’t exactly inspire confidence that future outbreaks-whether of mad cow or any other disease-could be readily contained. The scare decimated the $3.3 billion annual U.S. beef export market, as more than a dozen countries-the biggest in terms of consumption being Japan-slammed their doors shut to U.S. beef.

In response, the U.S. Department of Agriculture is pressing beef producers to voluntarily adopt new technologies so that by next year, any individual animal can be traced back to its birthplace within 48 hours. A pending bill in the U.S. Congress would mandate a still undefined system to electronically track cows from birth to slaughter. Meanwhile, Japanese and other foreign buyers are demanding proof that all cattle have been tested for mad-cow disease before they reopen their markets to U.S. beef.

The U.S. meat industry is consequently facing an extreme infotech makeover involving everything from RFID tags to retinal-scanning identification to global-positioning tracking technology-and even DNA testing. It’s a makeover that’s long overdue. “Today, a lot of this is done by gosh and by golly,” says Gary Acromite, chief information officer at Greeley, CO-based Swift, the nation’s third-largest meatpacker. “The traceability process is intended to take an old, old, old, old process that is very manual and modernize it with emerging technologies.”

The coming rush to trace meat could provide benefits that would extend far beyond ensuring that beef is safe from mad-cow disease. Indeed, for many sectors of the $95 billion livestock industry-not just beef but pork, lamb, and other meats-better tracking could provide a way to document to consumers that products are from animals raised on, say, organic feed, or that they have been tested for a wide variety of diseases. Moreover, once the meat industry gains the ability to track animals from birth to market, it will be able to determine which produced the best cuts and use that information to optimize breeding, veterinary care, and feeding practices. “From my point of view, it’s a no-brainer,” says Ray Goldberg, a professor of agribusiness at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government.

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