From Stable to Table

When bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) was discovered in Canada, Atlantic Beef Products (ABP, www.abpi.ca) managers decided they needed to protect its markets, so the company took positive steps to develop full traceability for its products. Protecting the business may have been ample justification to implement a hybrid automatic identification system, but the Prince Edward Island-based company has derived a number of other benefits from its wellplanned and carefully implemented bar code and radio frequency identification (RFID) systems.

Operating in one of the harshest industrial environments most people could imagine, ABP managers had to devise a system for identifying and tracking a product that essentially arrives whole and is then disassembled into component parts during processing. The challenge was the opposite of most manufacturers, which must track parts and components arriving from a variety of sources to be assembled into a complex finished product that leaves the factory as a single identity. ABP needed to know the pedigree of each piece of beef that left the plant, be able to provide a current disposition for that product all the way back to the field where the animal had grazed.

Operating in advance of regulations that could require the kind of traceability it can now achieve, ABP managers can easily and quickly answer the question, "Where's the beef?" If a particular animal becomes suspect, ABP can identify where the products produced from that animal were distributed and recall them. If tainted feed used by a particular ranch sparks a beef recall, ABP can identify all of the animals it processed from that ranch during a particular timeframe.

There are also benefits for the livestock-raising operations that send their cattle to ABP. With a link to the rancher's unique identifier, the company can provide reports on yield, grade and the price paid for each animal. The rancher can use such data to assess the impact of various breeding and feeding schemes based on what was earned from each animal. Of increasing importance in some markets, ABP's traceability can also identify product from livestock producers that are certified as raising organic product or cattle free of growth hormones or genetic modifiers. Here's how they did it.

Cattle arrive at the ABP facility with a rancher's "ear tag" identifier, usually a bar code. ABP attaches itsown tag, which has an internal tracking number oranimal number that will be used throughout theproduction process. The animal number for a carcass is recorded as it enters the clean area for processing and is hoisted ontotwo hooks. Each hook has a unique "license plate" RFID identifier embedded in it.

This was one of the first challenges faced by ABP and its technology suppliers Merit-Trax Technologies Inc. (Montreal, www.merittrax.com) and Psion Teklogix Corp. (Mississaugua, Ont., www.psionteklogix.com). Using a portable, wireless terminal, the original bar code identification is recorded along with the RFID numbers of the hooks. The hooks follow the carcass through a number of processing steps and then return to the induction area for reuse. During the process the two halves of the original carcass are moved in and out of blast freezers and lifted and dropped onto cutting tables.

The force of dropping a side of beef onto the cutting table startled Paul Berry, v.p. of software development for MeritTrax, the first time he experienced it. "It sounded like a shotgun going off," he recalls. When they decided to embed an RFID tag in plastic plugs and insert them into the hooks, Berry realized that not only would they have to withstand extremes of heat and cold (blast freezers can reach -35°C), they would have to resist impact with the metal tables without jarring the plug loose.

To solve the problem of reading a tag embedded in a metal hook, reports Bob Aubertin, director of sales and marketing for Merit-Trax, they came up with the plastic plug concept and notched the hook to provide signal access to the passive tag. The hooks are used on an overhead track, so readers could be positioned within six inches of the track and oriented to match the way the tag would be presented as the hooks passed.

The hooks are polled every 15 feet along the line. An alert is sent out if a hook doesn't read. This is not a process that is easily stopped and it is almost impossible to back up a step or two to fix a problem, says Berry. Because 100% reads are a base requirement, the system is very rugged with plenty of built-in redundancy.

When the carcasses enter the inspection area, they are read again to provide a link to the reports the inspectors produce. Once the grader finishes and presses the "update" key, the producer's invoice is updated.

In the beef industry, two weights are important. The initial weight is a "hot weight" taken at ambient temperature. The beef will lose some moisture and weight during the day or two it rests in a cooler. It is the cold weight taken when the sides of beef emerge from the cooler for processing that is the basis for the rancher's payment. The data collected through the process offers insight on how the beef grades and what shrinkage occurs during processing. Internally, ABP gets similar insights plus it can track the yield and determine worker productivity.

Paul Arsenault, controller for Atlantic Beef Products, says ABP has been able to identify productivity issues and address them with training because of the improved traceability. Along with knowing what grade and yield they get from various suppliers, the added efficiency has helped ABP cost-justify its investment.

Faster payment and the wealth of yield data have helped build loyalty among producers, reducing turnover and allowing ABP to hold onto better suppliers.

Being located on Prince Edward Island, the local market for beef is relatively small. ABP is currently in negotiations with potential export customers in lucrative markets such as Japan, which would have been impossible before the systems were in place because of strict traceability requirements. Canada itself is moving forward with new beef traceability requirements.

In the end, because of its proactive approach, ABP could come out well ahead of the curve as regulations evolve and other meat processors are required to comply. Not only will ABP have the necessary capabilities in place, it will already have amortized the cost.

Cold temperatures and condensation were just two challenges presented by the operating environment for scanners used by Atlantic Beef to maintain an unbroken "chain of custody."

The harsh environment of the abattoir led to embedding an RFID chip in a plastic plug which was then inserted into the metal hook that carries sides of beef through the processing plant.

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