Eyes Wide Open
Bringing the digital revolution to the farm is a daunting chore. For starters, most U.S. cattle producers are still mom-and-pop operations selling fewer than 500 calves every year. Margins are slim, and farmers tend to be skeptics about new technology. “Despite what Congress is saying, this is not something where we wake up one morning and say, Wow, why don’t we roll out traceability to 800,000 beef producers across the country?’” says Mark Armentrout, chief operating officer of AgInfoLink, a Longmont, CO, company that sells radio frequency identification tags and software.
The seemingly Herculean task is, however, somewhat eased by the fact that a few large corporations dominate the meat-processing business. Three companies-Tyson, Cargill, and Swift-together process more than two-thirds of U.S. beef. And the lessons from the mad-cow outbreak in the United Kingdom during the 1980s and ’90s are never far from the minds of officials at these firms. The British outbreak infected 200,000 cows and resulted in the precautionary killing of some 4.5 million more. Following reports of deaths from the human version of the disease, called variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, markets throughout the world closed to British exports. Ultimately, the U.K. outbreak resulted in the deaths of some 150 people, and some export markets remain closed to U.K. farmers to this day. U.S. meat producers are also well aware that what finally quenched the epidemic and reassured consumers was not only increased testing and a ban on dangerous feeding practices but a rigorous tracking system. These days, every cow raised in the United Kingdom is tracked for life with a bar-coded “passport.”
The United States is still far from having such a system in place. But large meat-processing companies like Swift are getting started. Swift’s novel approach is based on retinal scanning to record the unique vascular patterns in cows’ eyes. A handheld device is placed in front of the animal’s eye, and a few seconds later, the pattern is recorded and the animal positively identified. The cows don’t mind: “The first thing they do is they open their eyes real wide. They kind of look at it and stop,” says Bruce Golden, CEO of a small Colorado company called Optibrand, which developed the system and supplied it to Swift.
The retinal scanning is used on a portion of Swift’s own feedlots to keep track of the animals it raises-roughly a third of the 5,400 cattle it slaughters every day at its Greeley packinghouse. In a number of ways, the technology offers advantages over RFID tags, which occasionally get lost, can be switched by unscrupulous producers, and pose at least some risk of winding up stuck in a steak. Retinal scanning allows Swift to document where its cows were raised, and though it is just one step in tracking each animal’s medical history, it is already giving the company a marketing edge. “Even traceability back to lots of 20 or 30 animals has helped us in the marketplace,” says Swift’s Acromite.
But identifying an animal is only the first part of a tracking system. The real benefit comes from building a database that contains information such as birth date, identity of the animal’s “sire” and “dam” (as parents are known), its weight at various stages of life, dates and descriptions of medical treatments or hormone injections, and sales prices at auctions. “The real key here is that we are betting that in the not-too-distant future, the consumer, the government, and the world will require individual-animal traceability,” Acromite says. And while there’s no clear technology mandate or standard just yet, he says, the company is also integrating RFID tag readers and bar code scanners into its system in order to be ready “no matter what the feedlot guy, the government, or the industry throws at us.”
As a final touch, the handheld scanner developed by Swift and Optibrand includes a GPS receiver. Eventually, if the technology becomes widely used, an animal’s location will be logged in the database each time its eye is scanned. GPS coordinates could be correlated with locations such as the ranch where it was born, the feedlot where it grew up, any auction houses it might have passed through, and the slaughterhouse. This location information would be critical to rapidly identifying the herd mates of a sick animal. Consider what happened in the case of mad-cow disease in Washington State. An inspector noted that an animal appeared sick when it arrived for slaughter and pulled it out for testing. When the test came back positive, it took four days to learn where the sick animal came from and to identify its herd mates-not all of whom were accounted for. But if a sick cow shows up at Swift’s gate, and it’s been tracked from birth, such epidemiology could be accomplished almost instantaneously.