The CCIA also supplied the CFIA with all information on animals that went through the packing plants and also animals that went to the United States. "It was very beneficial to very quickly wrap up their investigation on the trace out," she said. "On the trace back, it was our tag on a progeny of the affected animal that linked them back with the DNA to confirm the herd of origin, so it was extremely instrumental in this case."

Technological Transition

Since 2000, Canada's National Cattle Identification Program has used products from Global Technology Resources (GTR), based in St. Paul, Minn., and though the United States isn't at the same level as Canada, company President and CEO Paul Cheek said nearly all U.S. cattle do sport an ID tag.

"We assign a premise ID to a rancher or farmer, so it starts from that point," he said. "You have a tag on the animal that corresponds back to the premise ID of the farm or ranch, and then that animal is sold at a sale yard. They usually put a back tag on the animal, so you have three readily available identifiers to tie the animal to its point of origin, and you can follow that throughout the system."

There are two main types of tags: bar code, which is the traditional tag, and radio frequency identification (RFID) tags, which are the most likely option for a national ID program, Cheek said.

It takes nearly two weeks to identify and gather information on diseased cows with bar-code tags, but moving to RFID technology will reduce that time to 48 hours, he said. The RFID tags are scanned into a reader and allow officials to follow the animal from point to point in a supply chain, he said.

In comparison, the National Identification Development Team's Fourdraine said information from bar-code tags must be scanned or punched into a computer manually.

The slaughter facility is the most critical point in the tracking process. Upon being slaughtered, a cow's different parts are put in various bins -- cow A's right shoulder could be tossed in bin No. 1, while its left thigh is tossed in bin No. 5 -- and tracking means knowing which parts are in what bin. GTR uses a proprietary algorithm to track individual pieces of meat.

"It took us almost 17 months to get our patent internally to develop this system where we could track individual cuts of meat, as well as hamburger meat," Cheek said, adding that tracking the cows specified for hamburger meat is critical, because anywhere from 50 to 60 cows are combined in each hamburger bin. The grinding operation is another critical step, he said, because it's where the blend takes place.

"You may have lean beef trim from older animals, and then beef scraps from feedlot animals from the Midwest blended together," he said. "Or you may have product in Australia, so you've got to tie all that together within that supply chain."

After cows are slaughtered and ground, GTR can also track time and temperature, and has GPS units to track beef distribution to an individual location, whether that's a fast food place like Wendy's, McDonald's or Burger King, or a supermarket chain, Cheek said.

Tracking Apprehension

Though GTR tracks meat as far as a restaurant or supermarket, the National Identification Development Team is only tracking to the point of slaughterhouse inspection, Fourdraine said.

"We've never said we're going to track to the package on the shelf," he said. "We're not taking it as far as where the animal is inspected in the processing facility. If you want to go beyond that, those numbers aren't included in the funding estimate and aren't part of our effort of

Jessica Jones  |  Managing Editor