The Food Journal and Food, Nutrition & Science

An alliance between The Lempert Report and The Center for Food Integrity

DNA and RFID Tracking at OBE Beef

DNA and RFID Tracking at OBE Beef

Food Safety Update

January 27, 2008

DNA and RFID Tracking at OBE Beef
We are always looking for new ways to keep our food supply safe. Perhaps that’s why tracking and tracing animals through a national animal identification program has become such a popular method for protecting animal health. Participants in these programs can more quickly locate animals that have been potentially exposed to disease, which gives them a strategic advantage in a competitive market.
Animal identification programs usually involve RFID (Radio Frequency Identification Device) in the form of an ear tag to help identify animals like cattle, with each animal receiving their own unique electronic ID. OBE Beef, an organic beef company based in Australia’s Channel Country, is one such producer participating in their country’s animal identification program.
Founded by a joint initiative in 1996 by a group of Channel Country beef producers, OBE Beef members collectively own over 16 million acres of land with over 100,000 cattle, making them one of the largest organic beef projects in the world. Their organic supply chain focuses on producing their beef in a completely natural environment, free of chemicals, pesticides, non-organic fertilizers and feed additives.
“The temperate, low-moisture climate of the region is one aspect that makes our farming conditions unique,” says OBE Beef Co-Founder Simone Tully. “Free from the internal and external parasites of some of Australia’s other growing areas, and boasting over 250 species of herbaceous grasses and grains, the region is a perfect fit for the standards that come hand-in-hand with raising animals in an environmentally sustainable way.”
Also, since OBE Beef is located in such an isolated region, the environment is geographically protected from many forms of contamination – like exposure to the chemical practices of other farms. This natural geographic defense, mixed with OBE’s strict product monitoring, has made them a leader both in the realm of organics andfood safety.
Unlike the USDA’s voluntary animal tracking system, Australia’s RFID system is mandatory, and has been so since July of 2006. Amazingly, within just one year, the program was fully implemented continent-wide. Tully says that although many farmers were hesitant at first, once they learned the technology, they began to embrace it. (OBE Beef had actually been using the technology since 2001).
“People generally agree now that this type of tracking is vital to ensuring the biosecurity of our livestock, and to ensuring food safety along the entire production chain,” says Tully. “The reality is that our consumers really need this info. It’s going to protect us in the event of a food safety issue, and it can be traced within a couple of hours.”
OBE tags their individual animals with RFID, ensuring rapid and accurate traceability as they move through the livestock chain. And they take things one step further. The latest in DNA technology is applied to further track their product as well. This voluntary technology, which has been in the marketplace in Australia for about three years, is now being used by 15% of Australian livestock owners.
DNA technology is not widely used in the United States, though it is a technique growing in acceptability since it provides an extra layer of traceability when used in combination with RFID. In fact, results of a 2006 Colorado State University Study suggest that DNA fingerprinting could enhance the effectiveness of animal traceability systems, helping to confirm individual identities of animals within the 48-hour period specified by our own country’s voluntary RFID tracking system.
Here’s how OBE Beef’s DNA profiling works. At the time of slaughter, a small tissue sample is taken from each cattle carcass. Then, the animal’s unique DNA profile is recorded into a computer database, enabling the resulting food product to be tracked as it moves through the supply chain. If a problem were to occur, OBE Beef could trace the beef product back to a specific animal, farm, time and date of slaughter.
“We decided to use DNA technology for two reasons,” says Tully. “One is for the food safety aspects. The other is for ensuring the quality of our organic product. We want to make sure, in the event of a question of substitution, that our customers are getting what they are paying for. DNA technology truly enhances the integrity of the organic system. It’s like double insurance.”
DNA tracking becomes especially important when product is distributed on a global scale. In addition to supplying major markets and distributors in Australia, the company exports its beef to Hong Kong, Taiwan, Singapore, Japan, Korea and the USA. Now that most producers have food moving around the world, full traceability has never been more important. Tully says that these days, it’s the cost of doing business in a global village.
“We have the ability to implement these new technologies affordably and efficiently,” she says. “At the end of the day, it’s about our consumers. If we can give them more confidence when buying our product, then that’s the goal.”