KANSAS CITY, MO. – Meat producers have tagged livestock for identification purposes for decades. But the tags of today have benefits beyond a sign of ownership. In its first in-person event of 2021, the Agricultural Business Council of Kansas City recently held a seminar and panel discussion aimed at exploring the benefits of traceability for all segments of the beef supply chain.

Speakers at the seminar included Glen Dolezal, PhD, vice president, protein, Cargill; Callahan Grund, executive director, US CattleTrace; and Chelsea Good, vice president of government and industry affairs and legal, Livestock Marketing Association.

Cattle are transported nationally and can change ownership through multiple transactions. Some stakeholders in the beef industry believe an updated robust cattle traceability system is necessary given the number and spread of producers across the United States.

“If the COVID equivalent of disease were to hit the cattle industry, such as foot-and-mouth disease or a large brucellosis outbreak – something of that nature – since we are so segmented it would be challenging to find those pinch points,” Grund said.

Matt Teagarden, chief executive officer, Kansas Livestock Association and moderator of the panel discussion, said, “That segmented aspect of our business is great. It creates a lot of opportunities for folks to add value at the ranch, at the grower operation, at the packing plant. But it has created this challenge of getting traceability implemented.”

Of the major beef exporting countries, the United States is without a robust traceability system, Teagarden said.

“The distinction there is…other countries have, to some extent, been forced into traceability because of the disease issue – case in Canada with BSE. We almost got there in 2003-2004 with our case of BSE,” he said. “I think the opportunity for us and one we’ve identified is we can design a system that fits us as an industry. Those other countries, it was top-down from the government, and it has worked, but maybe it has not been optimal.”

Factors the beef industry needs to work through before implementing a national livestock traceability system include logistics, labor and sharing of costs and benefits throughout the beef supply chain, Good said. Any traceability system should be unobtrusive to the flow of sales. At auction, animals can be sold in roughly 15 seconds or less.

“If you were to significantly change the number of animals that are being identified, you probably would have to change some of that flow and have some of the animals come in the day before to be tagged,” she said. “You’re also going to have to have the labor available to tag animals” at sale at a time when labor is a challenge across the meat processing industry.

“Even if they come in tagged, we really need to think about finding some systems to read these tags,” she added. High-frequency tags are needed because at sale, cattle aren’t lined up single file which is a formation that is necessary for reading low-frequency tags.

“You need an ultra-high frequency in order to read those tags at the speed of commerce in our livestock auction environments,” Good explained.

Cargill recently announced the company has joined US CattleTrace as an official packer member. US CattleTrace is working to assist animal health officials by responding to foreign animal disease events within the US cattle herd using a voluntary contact tracing system that works at all segments within the beef industry by collecting a minimal amount of data via ear tags and radio frequency identification (RFID) technologies.

Data collected from the ear tags is tiered and siloed which means there are limits to the information that approved users can share. US CattleTrace also uses a username, password and IP-restricted website and two-factor authentication as a layered approach to information security.

“Privacy is paramount for ranchers,” Grund said.

Data on the animals includes individual animal identification numbers as well as the date, time and GPS location of the animal. In the event of an animal disease outbreak, animals can be tracked to control the spread of the disease. Animals can also be tracked from birth location to each location they move to leading up to the harvesting process. Ear tags with electronic chips interact with the radio frequency emitted by the reader.

Dolezal said Cargill achieved a 95% read-rate on low-frequency ID tags. High-frequency ID tag readers were installed at two Cargill processing plants, one in Texas and another in Kansas. “Unfortunately, our read rates are only averaging about 80%,” he said.

Cargill engineers are working closely with US CattleTrace to find solutions to the lower read rates, but the company did find that the high-frequency tags are susceptible to water.

Still, Dolezal said Cargill believes a livestock traceability system would offer important benefits to the beef industry such as improved supply chain transparency, market access, especially for exports, enhanced global competitiveness, reduced costs for animal disease testing and surveillance, food safety and opportunities for livestock management efficiency.

“So, if you have individual animal identification in place, we feel great about sharing individual carcass data with producers to make better feeding management decisions,” he said.

Dual purposes

Grund stressed that a national livestock traceability system would enhance disease traceability to protect the US cattle herd. The use of ear tags for disease traceability versus marketing attributes of beef products should be distinguished, Good said.

“I think there’s a difference, and it’s an important difference, between traceability from a disease perspective and traceability from a value-added perspective,” she said. “I think it’s important to keep those things separate. You do see a lot of producers that are involved in value-added systems – non-hormone treated, things like that – where they are choosing to identify animals and keep that identification throughout the chain and receive a premium for that.”

Dolezal said Cargill customers weren’t specifically asking for traceability. But he said that, as Good mentioned, traceability comes into play when coupled with other attributes.

“We are fielding a lot of customer questions about antibiotic usage, sustainability initiatives and animal welfare,” he said.

“We’ve had traceable cattle back to birth for seven years, and we haven’t been able to get a retailer to buy a brand just based on traceability,” Dolezal said in response to an audience question. “The No. 1 reason they give is ‘Hey, I’ve already got conventional beef in the case; I’ve got all-natural beef in the case; I’ve got grass-fed ground beef in the case, I don’t need a fourth tier of SKUs. So, if you can tack some other things onto it, you’re dang right we want traceability.’”

Overall, traceability is important for animal health and market access as well as consumer trust and confidence, Dolezal said. It’s for those reasons and many others that Cargill decided to support US CattleTrace with $250,000 over the next two years.