Sioux-Preme Packing Co. shipped pork shoulder butts from its Sioux Center, IA, slaughterhouse September 10 to further processors in Iowa, Colorado and Mexico. While boning a cut, one processor sliced into a small electronic transponder.
The subcutaneous transponder had been placed there as part of a University of Minnesota research project. "If we would have been notified, we could have segregated the animals and avoided the problem," ruefully notes Jim Malek, vice president of Sioux-Preme. Instead, the company recalled 110 shoulder butts-1,110 lbs. in all-from 55 animals sent to Sioux-Preme that day from one supplier. Sioux-Preme elected to destroy the meat rather than rework it.
The incident speaks volumes about the state of traceability in the industry. First, if a problem arises after livestock enters the processing stream, the parties involved can identify where the animal came from and trace back more than one step. Second, more product tends to be recalled than necessary: only five of the hogs slaughtered that day had transponders imbedded in their shoulders. It also highlights the gap between the possibility of technology and the reality of logistics snafus. The five microchip-equipped hogs were supposed to have been removed from the herd when they reached market weight and returned to the university, not sent to Sioux-Preme.
The transponders were passive radio frequency ID (RFID) tags, equipped with antennae that are energized by a reader to relay identification information. These particular microchips also relayed body-temperature data from Digital Angel Corp.'s Bio-Thermo devices (see Food Engineering, May 2003). Compact and sophisticated devices, they provide valuable information on the general health of individual animals. Similar technology is used in the VeriChip, another implanted transponder that carries human medical information. The Food and Drug Administration recently approved the use of VeriChip, which is marketed by a division of Digital Angel. Those devices are criticized not only by privacy activists but some fundamentalist religious groups, who believe the tags are the "mark of the beast" described in the Book of Revelation.
A portion of the USDA funding is underwriting pilot programs involving RFID microchips. Digital Angel is working with several states, says Kevin Nuesma, RFID division head of Digital Angel, South St. Paul, MN. In Minnesota, Digital Angel will deploy microchips, scanners and possibly a data collection system to track individual animals from birth to slaughter. "We'll be able to track where the animals were fromwhere they went to slaughter, and all other animals they came in contact with that would have an exposure risk," Nuesma says. "Theoretically, livestock owners would be responsible for tagging the animal at birth. Each time it moved to a feedlot or other location, the tag would be scanned and the information reported to the database. It's not that different than transferring a car title."
Retinal scans are further along in commercial deployment. Swift & Company is using the technology with select feedlot suppliers and with cattle at its Greeley, CO, facility. When ConAgra owned the plant, Greeley was the site of the second largest recall in US food history, an event that dramatized the liability of a poor traceability system. A limited recall of beef trim and ground beef on June 30 mushroomed to include 18.6 million pounds, representing 28 production days because of inability to document control procedures.
As part of its Swift Trace to track beef from arrival at a processing facility to a specific box, the Greeley plant went commercial in February with multi-function scanners that capture a retinal vascular picture immediately after an animal is stunned, creating or confirming a unique identity that can be married to ear tags, RFID and other tracking data. Sides of beef exiting the cooler the next day are correlated with the retinal scan. Time studies take over once the sides enter the fabrication room.
The system represents a quantum step in traceability. "We have improved our ability to track animals from the day to the shift, to a span of hours, to minutes," according to Warren Mirtsching, Swift's vice president of food safety and quality assurance. "We are continuing to work to narrow that time span." The company also is investigating "forward to the consumer" technology, Mirtsching adds, including DNA testing to associate an individual steak to a specific animal.
Optibrand Ltd. of Fort Collins, CO, assembles the Unix-based, battery-powered scanner units at Greeley. The scanners encrypt images and other data to produce an auditable record. The units also can read bar codes, RFID tags and other identifiers, according to Mark Swanson, executive vice president of operations. Bluetooth wireless connection to a global positioning satellite provides a time, date and location stamp for data inputs.
"Now they can define an animal with what went into a box by linking the live animal to the dead one," Swanson says. "If you don't do that, you're still working with a large population." In the case of Greeley, the population could be an entire day's slaughter, or 5,000 head.
As Swift's former IT director, Swanson helped implement Swift Trace before joining Optibrand. "The scanner is sophisticated, but it's surprisingly simple to use," he says. "It's a very rugged PC with a key pad and multilingual functions." Operating conditions are harsher in a plant than on a ranch, and at Greeley, "our units have worked phenomenally. We're tickled pink."
An uncooperative cow might thwart retinal or RFID scans, Digital Angel's Nuesma argues. His firm has patented a special reader/antenna bolted to a restraining chute. While veterinarians immobilize cattle for examinations and inoculations, RFID data can be captured and relayed to a local computer or network for tracking purposes.
"Iris scans, DNA tracking and other technology may have roles to play, but radio frequency is the only way to track animals throughout their lifecycles without impeding the flow of commerce," insists Nuesma. "How do you scan an iris when a cow is moving or read a bar code after a week in a feedlot?"
"Traceability is good PR, but knowing what's going on in your plant in real time makes justifying the system a lot easier," says Leonard. "Increased yields and better management is where you get your payback."
Sardinha's experience at L&H has made him rethink the use of bar codes in Cat2's other tracing systems. Bar code technology has helped Cooper Farms reduce response times in mock recalls of further-processed poultry to less than two hours (Food Engineering, August 2004). Codes are assigned to lots of raw materials and to each ingredient and processing step, and operators scan them throughout the process to build "an inverted tree" of all components and procedures performed for each case of finished goods.
But bar codes can be rendered unreadable. Humidity can produce frost build-up on cases in a freezer, for example. RFID overcomes the problem, and the L&H project has made Sardinha a believer in the technology. L&H's tags from Allflex cost less than $1 each and have been reused hundreds of times.
No matter how well a traceability system performs and a processor executes it, companies are at the mercy of their suppliers, Sardinha points out. "Some salt vendors change lot numbers every three months. If there was ground glass in a lot, it would explode a recall out. What are the people who supply me doing to minimize the scope of a recall?"
Another hurdle is attitude: when processors view tracking and tracing as a government mandate or customer requirement, it becomes an onerous cost. In fact, "traceability is nothing else but knowing how your product yields inside of your plant," he says. "There is no separation between the two: if you control yield and waste, you have traceability."
Other software and controls suppliers concur. Systems that deliver tracking and tracing capabilities also provide tools to analyze operations and improve efficiencies. Minimizing the cost of a product recall is one aspect. "It's a cost-avoidance issue in terms of reduced liability," says Randy Sadowski of Rockwell Automation. More positive payback comes from efficiencies that improve output or reduce material costs.
Three food plants served as beta sites for Tracker, a new traceability database from Rockwell. The database stores information on the lot numbers of ingredients used, which fillers or depositors dispensed product, maintenance and sanitation histories on each machine, who the operators were, what packaging materials were applied, etc. "Whatever is relevant to the production and process can be added," says Sadowski, RSBizware product manager.
At one of the beta sites, several lines are involved in producing a cheese-based product. Monthly cheese variances of up to $80,000 were occurring. "Nobody's walking off with $80,000 worth of cheese: it was just being misapplied," Sadowski says. "If you track when the cheese was consumed, where it was consumed and how much, you can pinpoint if variance was the result of a bad filler, an operator generating excessive scrap or some other action on the line," he says.
If a traceability module is simply cobbled onto existing systems, "I pay for it, but I get no value from it," adds Scot McLeod, marketing vice president for Ross Systems Inc. Unfortunately, that is often the route chosen by food and beverage processors, particularly those migrating from paper- and spreadsheet-based tracking to stopgap electronic-records systems. "They look at it as a negative cost that provides no intrinsic value to the business," he says. Unless tracking reports are part of a management system that provides information on key performance indicators, traceability is a burden rather than a boon.
As a supplier to supermarkets and club stores, Austin, TX-based Michael Angelo's Gourmet Foods Inc. began feeling the heat a few years ago to fully account for where its raw materials came from and where finished goods were shipped. A score of ingredients from multiple suppliers often go into the frozen calzones and other Italian entrees produced in its 132,000-sq.-ft. facility. Processing is complex: ravioli goes through 24 production stages, with different ingredients added at each one, according to Anass Bennani, information systems manager. Further complicating matters is a just-in-time supply system that ensures ingredient freshness but also means tracking many more supply lots than if ingredients could be inventoried.
The company deployed Ross' iRenaissance ERP package to better manage inventory and production. Reduction in product variance has been the primary benefit, Bennani says, but entwined with that is the ability to account for all components and processing steps. If a customer questioned any given item, Michael Angelo's could generate a complete report within four hours.
Four-hour response in a one up, one down recall situation is expected to be the FDA's standard when traceability rules are established under the Bioterrorism Act of 2002. Fast is good; precise is better, at least where customer relations are concerned. Being able to isolate individual batches in a high-speed dairy can be the difference between recalling milk from a handful of stores or hundreds, notes Jan Rasmussen, a manager with Wonderware Scandinavia in Copenhagen, Denmark. By adding Wonderware's InTrack system to an IndustrialSQL Server installation, Arla Foods' Christianfeld Dairy Centre "is able to pull a recall report in 20 seconds," while a customer is still on the phone, Rasmussen maintains. "Previous dairy systems were not automated," adds Erik Veslov, Christianfeld's production manager. "PLCs were not connected, and there was no reporting and no traceability. Important information could only be retrieved by wading through piles of reports."
Arla is Europe's largest processor of fluid milk, and the Christianfeld facility is the first to include inTrack as part of a plantwide MES installation. Arla manages a growing roster of 70 dairies, all of which were owned by local cooperatives until the mid-1990s and none of which have the same automation system. Traceability is a valuable and necessary capability, allows Rasmussen, but the real payoff will be the ability to quickly "Arla-ize" existing and acquired plants. Computer codes were created to define the input/ output for each piece of equipment in the Christianfeld dairy. The machines become generic objects from a controls point of view, simplifying plantwide integration. The creation of a network of objects took 30 days at Christianfeld; the next two plants took 10 days each. The implications for company-wide integration are enormous.
Customers also want greater visibility to what occurred within the four walls of the processing facility. While systems like Ross' iRennaisance and Rockwell's BizWare provide the technological foundation, the data-delivery infrastructure has yet to be built. In the meantime, physical audits are the best available tool, and processors' customers increasingly are demanding them.
Charlotte, NC-based pest-control specialist Steritech Group added a traceability module to its GMP reviews two years ago. "Recent events such as the BSE case have elevated the importance of traceability and underscored the fact we obviously didn't have good traceability in place," reports Mark Jarvis, president of Steritech's food safety division. "For companies that are not quite where they should be, we often discover that manufacturing was done with reckless abandon."
Bob Strong, vice president of quality management systems, performs many of those audits. Three areas stand out as significant chinks in the traceability capabilities of plants, says Strong: rework, bulk deliveries and packaging materials. With today's focus on traceability, "some people are refusing to do rework, choosing instead to donate out-of-spec products to charity, sell it under a second label or throw it away." Bulk materials become an issue when two deliveries are commingled, a situation that is avoided by adding dedicated storage tanks for each delivery.
Packaging wouldn't be a problem if food companies saw the value of tracing programs. That is not yet the case, according to Strong. "The packaging industry is further along with tracing programs than the food companies that use their materials," he says. Closures and other package components usually have lot numbers, but many food companies neglect to record them, he says.
Shifting from paper-based to automated tracking systems does little good if processors don't see the business value of traceability. Companies that approach traceability as another mandate are missing the wider implications. "You shouldn't have to take the stick approach; the carrot should work," Strong says. "It makes economic sense."
The Bioterrorism Act, Regulation 178/2002 in the European Union and the Food Allergen Labeling and Consumer Protection Act add immediacy to the tracking and tracing discussion, but customer demands and consumer confidence are even bigger drivers. The technology exists to improve traceability. Now it's a question of how it is deployed.
For more information:
Mike Sardinha, Cat2,
Kevin Nuesma, Digital Angel Corp.,
Steve Phelan, Formation Systems,
John Cravens, Optibrand Ltd.,
Randy Sadowski, Rockwell Automation,
Scot McLeod, Ross Systems Inc.,
Mark Jarvis, the Steritech Group,
Brian Meagher, Thermo King Corp.,