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Traceability 101

What Canadian poultry producers will soon be asked to do as mandatory traceability systems are phase


April 2, 2010
By Treena Hein

Topics

There’s a lot of buzz about traceability these days

There’s a lot of buzz about traceability these days and, although policy goals have been defined and preliminary steps have been taken at both national and provincial levels, the nuts and bolts of reaching those goals – and what producers will be asked to do – are still being worked out.

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Tracing Products: Having traceable product information reduces risk exposure by enabling food producers, processors and retailers to identify, isolate and correct problems quickly and efficiently. Under consideration for traceability for livestock products is the use of RFID tags (already in place for cattle) or codes on products that are composed of a farm number and date shipped, as shown above. 

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Traceability is defined as the ability to trace the current and historical location of an animal, group of animals or animal products from one point in the supply chain to another. There are three parts: product identification, premises identification and movement tracking.

Although it comes with operational adjustments and costs for individual producers, processors, transportation companies and others, there are many benefits to having a fully functional food traceability system – including potentially huge cost savings. It is also not something Canada can continue to do without, as mandatory traceability is well established in large trading-partner economies such as the European Union and Japan. 

“First and foremost, in the case of disease outbreak, traceability lowers the costs of outbreak management, because quick action can be taken,” says Allen Tyrchniewicz, president of Winnipeg-based Tyrchniewicz Consulting (and co-author of a white paper entitled “Perspective on the Impact of Agriculture & Food Traceability on Public Health,” which was submitted in January 2010 to OnTrace, the industry organization delivering traceability in Ontario). “It also helps reduce the impacts of diseases that can be transmitted from animals to humans,” Tyrchniewicz says.

In addition, traceability systems are a must in order to keep pace with international competitors, and – as was the case with beef after the BSE outbreak – in order to regain markets by restoring consumer confidence. Traceability also reduces the costs of administering animal health programs, says Tyrchniewicz.

“It also decreases the risk of unfounded liability claims by documenting who is and who is not part of the particular problem that has arisen,” he observes. Furthermore, traceability is essential to the survival of business in regulated markets. “It becomes a tool for marketing,” observes Tyrchniewicz, “and creates brand identity and loyalty for products.”

The concept, he says, can also be viewed as a strategic response by companies to the increasing consumer perception of risks related to food products. “Traceability is not food safety,” he observes, “but it strengthens food safety capabilities. Simply put, reliable, accurately traceable information reduces risk exposure by enabling food producers to identify, isolate and correct problems quickly and efficiently. This protects public health, and minimizes the economic fallout from incidents such as food recalls.”


At the farm level

Producers, for the most part, have heard enough about these benefits – and the way North America is lagging behind other important export markets – that they’re generally no longer asking why traceability is a must. They also know it will cost time and money to implement and that their data will be accessed, at least in theory, only by authorized personnel for appropriate reasons.

That leaves farmers wondering, however, what exactly they will have to do in terms of their part in the whole system. The good news is that the benefits will more than likely outweigh the costs, says Tyrchniewicz. He envisions the following as one possible eventual scenario.

First, an RFID chip (radio frequency identification chip) is placed on the shipment of eggs or birds about to leave the farm. These chips have been a standard method of tracking goods in retail supply chains all over the world for several years. The data on the chips can be read wirelessly at a short distance and can be added to as the shipment moves along the supply chain. (RFID tags are also, for example, placed on heavy equipment tires, so that a worker can instantly and easily find out when they were last rotated, and more. They are also used in new “enhanced driver’s licences” in Ontario and British Columbia to allow things like quicker border crossings – a protective sleeve is provided that prevents the chip from being “read” at other times.)

Secondly, the producer will enter specifics about the shipment of eggs or birds into a computer database program. “Farmers are already keeping track of all this – when and how many eggs were shipped, to whom, what type of eggs and the inputs, such as feed, that went into those eggs,” says Tyrchniewicz. This input data could be automatically “up-loaded” to the RFID chip.

The shipment leaves the farm. At the first destination, and at each destination thereafter, the shipment’s RFID chip is added to, read and uploaded into a provincial/national real-time traceability database. As products are made from these raw materials – for example, the eggs are used to make cakes at a processing plant – new RFID chips are created that incorporate the data from each raw ingredients’ chip, allowing complete traceability.

In an emergency scenario, the system is used to locate and solve the problem (isolating animals, recalling products, etc.).

However, other older technologies besides RFID may also play an important role. In Ontario, OnTrace has finished building a voluntary premises registry, and is filling the registry with data at the same time that it progresses with product identification and movement tracking activities. Two pilot projects involved the Ontario Corn-Fed Beef Producers and Ontario Independent Meat Processors, the latter of which successfully tracked product from farm to store. “RFID tags on cattle been shown to be an effective solution,” says OnTrace CEO Brian Sterling. However, while he considers RFID to be “really effective” in a lot of circumstances, it’s “not a universal answer,” in his opinion. 

First of all, Sterling points out that current RFID technology can be affected by high moisture levels, on shipments such as fruit in an enclosed space or frozen food. In addition, systems involving, for example, bar codes (on boxes of products being shipped or individual UPC bar codes on products in stores) are already in place and work well. In Sterling’s view, “We need to use the subsystems that already exist in creating the whole traceability chain, not create an entirely new process to gather data.”

“We are building the track, and working also on how to best ‘click the railcars together,’ so to speak,” says Sterling. “Most businesses have what we call internal traceability in place – for example, a sausage-maker knows where the meat and spices and casings come from – but these ‘cars’ have to be joined to make a complete traceability system functional.”


Federal and provincial outlooks

On a national scale, Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada (AAFC) created a federal, provincial and territorial Traceability Task Team in 2005. This organization led to the creation of the National Agriculture and Food Traceability System (NAFTS), which has an initial focus on livestock and poultry but will eventually involve all food.

As stated on the AAFC website, “NAFTS will be built upon national standards to ensure credibility, integrity and efficiency. All parties with legitimate needs and rights shall be able to access information under common requirements that protect the privacy of individuals and proprietary information. NAFTS will be built using a phased approach – recognizing each sector/user’s unique risks and opportunities.”

The four national poultry organizations sit on the NAFTS industry-government advisory board. “We have a close relationship with industry and we all want to make [traceability] happen,” notes Susie Miller, director general of the Food Value Chain Bureau (AAFC Market and Industry Services Branch). “Our purpose is strictly emergency management.” How each commodity group accesses and uses the traceability data in the system for other purposes such as marketing, she says, is up to them.

Premises identification initiatives are being handled provincially, says Miller, with Alberta and Quebec the only jurisdictions so far where it is mandatory. With regard to the other two “pillars” of traceability – product identification and movement-tracking – Miller says industry is leading initiatives in these areas. In most provinces and territories, this means traceability systems are being developed and implemented by commodity groups with the assistance and funding of provincial Ministries of Agriculture.

In British Columbia, for example, under the province’s Enterprise Infrastructure Traceability Program established in 2009, commodity groups receive federal money under the “Growing Forward” funding framework that farm and post-farm businesses use to study and implement traceability. No poultry groups applied in 2009 for funding, but the next round of applications begins in April.

Similarly, the Alberta Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development has three programs through with commodity groups can access Growing Forward funding. These are the RFID Technology Assistance Project, which provides software and hardware for feedlots, the Traceability Pilot Program, where livestock industry participants are given funding to explore traceability technology solutions such as RFID, and the Traceability Training program for organizations that wish to provide education on traceability.

In addition to mandatory traceability coming into force on Jan. 1, 2009, in Alberta, it is also now a legal requirement that all larger feedlots in the province participate in online livestock information reporting.

In Ontario, OnTrace is an industry organization (that does, however, receive government funding) in charge of handling traceability for all commodity groups. It was incorporated in 2006, four years after the Ontario On-Farm Food Safety Initiative began. In Quebec, a nonprofit industry-government partnership called Agri-Traçabilité Québec was established in 2001. All provincial entities continue to communicate with federal and other provincial government agencies to ensure co-ordinated traceability efforts.

No national traceability regulations have yet been put forward, simply because it’s too early in the process to do so. “To us, this is a partnership and we have to make sure it is possible for industry to meet regulatory requirements,” says Miller. Mandated federal traceability goals do exist for 2011; Miller says that, while complete traceability might not happen by 2011, “it will happen as soon as possible.”

To contribute to the efficiency, accuracy, and responsiveness of NAFTS, some national industry organizations are developing identification and movement tracking systems under the Canadian Industry Traceability Infrastructure Program (CITIP) initiative.

The Egg Farmers of Canada, for example, says Miller, have done a project involving movement of flocks and eggs. The Egg Farmers of Canada (EFC) for example, are currently conducting an egg traceability project. “There are two producers, one from New Brunswick and one from Nova Scotia involved,” says George McCleod, EFC Board Member for New Brunswick and producer representative on Industry-Government Advisory Committee on Traceability.  An eight digit number referring to farm, date shipped and so on is being placed on each egg, along with a maple leaf.

“There is a lot of information already collected for biosecurity purposes in the poultry industry,” Miller notes. “In the next month, we will sit down [with industry representatives] and see where the gaps are between this information and the information we need for emergency management. Our best guess is that it’s the same, so the next step is making sure industry groups are comfortable with government having access to that information when an emergency occurs.”

“Canada’s agriculture and food industry competes on a global stage,” concludes Tyrchniewicz. “We have a reputation for safe, high-quality food, which is a critical link in better personal and public health, and we will find reliable and credible ways to communicate this to consumers at home and abroad – and traceability is a large part of that.