A government official says investigators would struggle to fully trace what happened if Canada ever had another serious animal disease outbreak or major food recall.
“A disease outbreak will occur,” Brent McEwan told the recent Alberta sheep symposium in Calgary.
“Can we deal with it fast enough before there is another crisis?”
McEwan is part of a team at Alberta Agriculture that is working on full traceability for livestock and food production in Canada.
“The competition is ahead of us and we have to catch up.”
He said it was hoped the shock of BSE would teach the industry lessons. Full cattle identification proved its worth, but food producers should not confuse it with traceability, he added.
So far, traceability in Canada has been developed in a piecemeal fashion, but McEwan said the concept may be kick started if corporations follow through with their musings about making it a requirement for all suppliers.
The benefits of this scheme are not always evident because it is a cost to industry, he added.
Governments estimate that the cost of identification and traceability for cattle is $ 5.72 per head, hogs $1.99 and sheep $5.27.
Alberta is moving ahead with a plan to prepare and respond to emergencies such as a weather disaster or disease outbreaks among all livestock, bees, potatoes, grain crops and specialty crops. Part of that plan includes completing premise identification by the end of this year.
All Alberta hogs and premises are already identified and no hog is slaughtered without full information.
“We’re hoping Alberta can take the lead and share the information to the benefit of everybody,” McEwan said.
Premise identification can provide producer information, legal land descriptions, location of the home quarter and other holdings and the farm’s capacity for livestock. The government does not need exact numbers of livestock but in the event of a disaster or disease, it will know what is there in case of quarantines or rescues.
To trace cattle movement, three Alberta auction markets have become completely automated and by next year all 32 of the province’s auctions will be automated to provide traceability via computer hookups. Work is also ongoing to automate feedlots and packers to further follow animal movement.
Sunterra Meats in Innisfail, Alta., has developed a process to identify lambs from birth to the processor. When they arrive at the plant, the lambs are weighed and scanned and information is correlated to individual ear tags. Besides traceback, this data could be returned to producers interested in carcass improvement.
In some cases technology has not developed far enough to provide all the information required. The system also needs to work for large and small farms. Numerous databases may be developed but they should all be accessible by authorities using a simple computer search engine, McEwan said.Â
Quebec has full, mandatory traceability and Alberta is meeting with officials there to inspect their system.
Around the world, the European Union general food law in 2002 made traceability compulsory for all food and feed businesses. Japan and Australia have beef traceability laws.
Some private firms have made it part of their business and promotion strategy.
For example, in the United Kingdom, branded meat programs such as Scotland Beef and Lamb and Northumbrian Quality Meats offer full traceability from farm to retailer.
Superquinn, a major retailer in Ireland, spends $3.6 million a year on food safety and traceability. It promises 100 percent traceback to the farm using DNA technology on fish, chicken, beef and pork.
McDonalds Corp. in Japan provides full traceability on its website that includes pictures of the animals and farms where they were raised.
Heritage Foods, USA set up each product sold at its stores with a traceability label and certification number. When typed into the company website, full information on the product is provided including details about every farm supplying food to the chain.
“Our grocery chains haven’t even thought about it at this point,”