Unless a steak was purchased from the farmer down the road, it can be hard to tell exactly where it came from, even if the sticker on the package says local. Now, Michigan State University is conducting a new pilot program that could give that information to a consumer with a smartphone after a quick barcode scan.
In 2007, Michigan adopted a mandatory livestock tracing program — the only one of its kind in the country — requiring all cattle have a radio frequency identification (RFID) ear tag before leaving their original farm. The tags are designed to track the movement of Michigan’s cattle herd and provide animal health officials with a tool to trace an individual animal back to where it was born. Now, that the mandatory tracking system has been in place for four years, Michigan State researchers want to continue improving the system by continuing the traceability of information beyond just the processor.
"We want to be able to trace individual animals from the farm to the plate," said Michigan State animal science associate professor Dan Buskirk. "By translating RFID ear tags to a barcode, pieces or packages of beef can be labeled with that code, tracing it back to the farm and the individual animal."
Buskirk, who has been working with the Michigan RFID program since its inception, was looking for a way to expand its value when fellow animal science assistant professor Jason Rowntree began working on a new project to utilize university-raised beef cattle in university restaurants and cafeterias.
"There is not currently a commonly accepted definition for the word ‘local,’ so when something is labeled and marketed as local, one can’t be sure what local means. It could mean a certain number of miles from a given store or could indicate it originated elsewhere in the state or even in a multi-state area," Buskirk added. "What we’re trying to do is to be able to not only say it’s ‘local,’ but to prove it’s local."
The pilot for the local beef project will also serve as the pilot program for Buskirk and his team to begin putting the pieces in place to track beef all the way to the consumer. He is working with small- and medium-sized food processors to perfect the technology and identify any challenges for implementing it. Coordinating the barcode with the multitude of products that can come from a single animal appears to be one of the biggest hurdles they face.
"Besides just tracking a single animal from birth to harvest, there can be up to 500 packages of meat in a single beef carcass, so trying to track that volume has a whole different set of issues," Buskirk explained. "That’s what this pilot project is going to help us do — refine the technology and refine the methods we use to be able to track beef through the entire system."