Australian Traceability Put To The Test In Alberta

Traceability is no longer an issue in Australia. It’s become a part of doing business that the beef industry has bought into since it was made mandatory in 2005. Now that people know how it works, they support it just as passionately as they resisted it in the beginning, according to Garry Edwards, CEO of Livestock Exchange, headquartered at Albany Creek, Queensland, Australia.

Livestock Exchange develops and sells RFID (radio frequency identification) data capture and exchange software that is compatible with Australia’s National Livestock Identification Scheme operated by Meat and Livestock Australia. The company offers desktop and palm-held software programs to meet the needs of auction markets, cattle buyers, producers and contract scanners. Currently, Livestock Exchange supplies equipment and support services to 155 sale yards. It also specializes in complete livestock traceability system installation and management from the software to the computer system and hardware, ranging from basic wand readers to large automatic scanning systems.

Edwards was recently in Alberta demonstrating how the parts — tags, readers and computer software — work together to create an effective traceability system in the working world. Staff came along to offer tips on how to tweak the system so that it keeps up with the speed of commerce. Australian markets that handle as many as 12,000 head per day are now processing animals faster than before traceability was put in place.

“It’s exciting to have the chance to demonstrate a whole system and how we can get it to work,” Edwards says. “The struggle in North America is that you have all the parts and pieces, but this is the first time the Canadian industry will see all the components pulled into a customized system.”

Edwards is also a director with Integrated Traceability Solutions (ITS), a Canadian-U.S. company that holds the licence to market Livestock Exchange software. Yancy Crosier of Champion, Alta. is the national sales manager in Canada.

ITS has the contract to supply customized traceabilty systems at six auction markets participating in an Alberta Agriculture and Rural Development (AARD) auction market pilot project. The six sites are: Perlich Bros. at Lethbridge, VJV at Stavely, Highwood Livestock at High River, Stettler Auction Mart, Provost Livestock, and Sekura Auction at Drayton Valley. All of the markets should be outfitted and reading animals in and out by November.

The Alberta project, designed in co-operation with the Alberta Auction Markets Association, will evaluate the needs of Alberta auction markets as well as the value-adding potential of traceability.

Livestock Exchange’s Stockman software and multi-animal panel readers manufactured by Aleis are the main components being installed in the Alberta project. Numbers read off RFID tags by the panels are downloaded to the Canadian Cattle Identification Agency’s database where they are matched to age and premise data associated with the tag and fed back to the market where it can be printed out for sales catalogues and electronically displayed as the animals go through the ring.

ITS is also the consultant on a U.S. project using a comparable system. Given the trade ties between the two countries, Edwards says it makes sense to keep the traceability systems similar. The U.S. doesn’t have a national tracking database, however, ITS has a licence to use the database technology developed in Australia.

Australia’s experience

“Scanning has to be 100 per cent accurate or you don’t have a complete traceability system,” Edwards stresses. “There’s no room for error and no

excuses.” Animals missing tags or with unreadable tags are re-tagged and reentered into the database accordingly.

High-quality RFID tags will read with 100 per cent accuracy. There’s such a small percentage that don’t read that it’s not even an issue in Australia, he adds. A lot of work went into improving the tags so that the industry would have a base operating system at a level that would allow complete traceability. As a result, there isn’t the variance in tags that there is in Canada. A lot of time was spent educating producers about proper tagging as well.

For ringside sales, animals are scanned on arrival and again when they load out. Scanning on arrival captures the information that buyers want and facilitates automatic sorting of the animals into like groups. Scanning when they leave ensures that the stock are going out to the correct buyer. Some markets run pen sales. For these, the animals are scanned at the pen as the buyers move down the alleys.

The advantages of traceability are that markets can now maximize the value of the cattle for producers by properly describing them to the buyers and the buyers can be confident when purchasing age-and source-verified animals, Edwards explains.

In turn, this has given Australian producers access to new and high-value export and domestic markets that want this type of information. Even mature animals that are eligible for “lifetime traceability” status are accepted into premium markets because the program allows companies to differentiate their food products in the marketplace. Edwards says this has helped to put a floor on the market that was never there before for producers.

“A traceability system only works if it’s from start to finish. Because it’s mandatory, the industry has evolved to justify the cost of installing the systems,” he says. The markets, feedlots and packing plants have the equipment and want to make the most of it by automating their operating systems as much as possible to reduce the amount of manual labour involved. Though it took a few years, they now see a benefit to sharing some of the information they collect. Electronically integrated systems make it quick and easy to transfer data, so now there’s a lot more data flowing back and forth between different sectors.

The Australian government provided some short-term funding on a cost-sharing basis to help producers, markets and abattoirs put their systems in place, then backed off to let private business take the lead. In essence, the government put the onus on industry as a whole to make sure traceability works.

“Industry gets it right because they know if they do it right, there’s a premium. If they don’t, they lose money and there are penalties to pay,” Edwards explains.

In the beginning, there were all of the same wrinkles and concerns in Australia as there are in Canada today. Also like Canada, the Australian beef industry is hugely dependent upon export markets — to the tune of one billion dollars a month. Traceability is pretty cheap insurance to keep borders open, he says.

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