The foot and mouth epidemic provided a striking illustration of just how difficult it can be to trace complex movements of animals around the country. The economic and social costs of outbreaks of disease in sheep are fuelling a drive to find more effective ways to track sheep movements in the event of another similar outbreak on this scale. Traceability technology is doing just that, playing a critical role in helping streamline the way farmers manage and monitor their flocks as they progress through the food chain, as well as in restoring consumers’ confidence in the safety and quality of their meat.
DEFRA’s (Department for Environment Food and Rural Affairs) updated guidelines on electronic tagging in sheep are designed to enable easier and more efficient monitoring of animal movements, with hand-written or printed labels being replaced by electronic identification (EID) tags which can identify the batch numbers of animals. The guidelines, which came into effect at the end of 2009, say that all sheep born – or tagged for the first time – after 31 December 2009 must carry an EID tag.
The tags, which can be fitted to the sheep’s ear, carried as a bolus in the rumen or as a pastern tag fitted to the leg, have a unique individual animal identification number that is transmitted by the RFID (radio frequency identification) transponder. This is a simple radio device that receives radio signals from a reader and transmits the information stored in a tiny microchip in the tag back to the reader. While the rules do not stipulate that all EID tags need to be read electronically, electronic reading is likely to be a necessity for farmers that have higher numbers of sheep moving between farms, for example, to temporary grazing, where the farmer has no day-to-day control over the animals.
There are several benefits to this system. Compared to the paper-based systems still widely used to record flock movements, electronic traceability technology can enable increased efficiency, effectiveness and security in the tracking of the sheep, while improving record keeping right through the food chain from farms and markets to abattoirs and supermarkets.
The ability to rapidly identify an animal’s unique identification in this way also cuts down on the vast amounts of time that can be spent on logging and monitoring large flock movements, helping farmers to move away from a manual spreadsheet-led approach - where human error can creep in - to a more streamlined, efficient model. It is also helping to streamline logistical processes by speeding up the handling of sheep and optimising the order and shipment process.
With many UK farmers already operating within very tight margins, the costs of livestock traceability systems have not always been seen as proportionate to the social and private benefits. However, the costs of investment in equipment have to be offset against the significant cost savings from time efficiencies and saved labour costs – and against the potential costs to animal and human health if animals cannot be properly traced in the event of disease.
So RFID technology is playing a vital role at the heart of protecting public health in terms of food safety and traceability in the event of disease, enabling swift withdrawal of affected products from sale to the public. And with celebrity chefs championing the sustainable rearing of free-range, organic meat, traceability technology is also giving customers the information they need to verify that their meat was reared in the way the packaging claims, and to pin its provenance right down to the name of the farmer who produced it.
Marie-Françoise Glotz is vice president, Food and Animal ID, Industry and Logistics, Identification Solutions for HID Global. HID Global is a world leader in the development of RFID technology used to manage and safeguard farm, laboratory, exotic and companion animals as well as high-value food products. Its innovative, specialised tags meet all applicable standards and regulations and are fully interoperable with other standardised components and systems.
For further information, visit: www.hidglobal.com