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It's what's for dinner ... and the way IT should get done.

by / November 5, 2006

Here's an urgent message from the turkey that may become your Thanksgiving dinner: Try beef.

And if it's half the bird Benjamin Franklin thought turkeys were, it would tell you -- out of loyalty to your craft -- to be sure to ask for South Dakota Certified Beef.

Perhaps some explanation is in order.

Over the last two decades, Government Technology has documented at least as many technology-driven business solutions for state and local government as Good Housekeeping has published turkey recipes. This month, the two publishing traditions meet as we squeeze just one more solution profile into this special holiday issue.

The South Dakota Certified beef program, the first state-initiated scheme of its kind, is more than a Web site -- although you can find recipes and retailer locations there -- and it is more than a branding exercise, though it purposefully repositions a commodity product as a premium brand.

Behind the public-facing pixel layer is Gov. Mike Rounds' long-term strategy to: (a) increase profit margins for producers of locally bred and fed beef; (b) differentiate it from other cellophane-wrapped red meat; and (c) provide public safety safeguards in the event of a disease outbreak. And behind the strategy is a sophisticated, integrated information system that delivers on the program's promise.

At its core, the South Dakota Department of Agriculture and the State Veterinarian teamed up to extend the existing AgInfoLink system to "allow consumers to trace the beef they eat from pasture to plate."

The certification program is funded primarily through licensing fees from the producers who participate in the program. Once licensed, producers can enroll their calves in the certification program by providing baseline data, which is augmented over the course of the animals' lives thanks to radio frequency identification (RFID) ear tags. The system also automatically records the date and locations of each move. Though this data is commercially valuable, it becomes critical in the event of a disease outbreak when -- the system would track registered animals' movements and tie them back to their place and date of birth.

The system provides a longitudinal view of animal ownership, location, transfers (which now come with warranties for the buyers) and eligibility status -- including the decertification of any animals that no longer make the cut.

Even in South Dakota, cattle are not a protected class, so the certification program provides a production environment for proving RFID technology that is free of the policy controversies that weigh down its application to programs involving personally identifiable information of Homo sapiens.

Importantly the system supports public health and food security objectives without becoming captive of homeland security or any other single purpose. The infrastructure prepares South Dakota for rapid detection and response when, and if, that becomes necessary while being used daily for the less glamorous work of managing and harvesting a state's worth of cattle.

Speaking of harvest, the cattle arrive at the processors with a complete digital dossier aggregated over their lives from every producer who has owned or handled them. At harvest, the processor collects information about the carcasses -- tenderness, marbling and yield grades -- that matter both to consumers and the producers increasingly focused on market differentiation of commodity flesh.

Every producer in the certification program can then apply business intelligence to the data of cattle they have owned -- individually and in aggregate -- and evaluate which management decisions added value.

There is a noticeable level of prairie common sense in all of this.

What could have been a handful of separate point solutions instead came together as an information ecosystem around the state's beef industry. It manages and reports inventory and transactions involving enrolled cattle, serving to increase producer, processor and consumer confidence in the safety of an economically important part of the food supply.

While sparing us the bloody details of the slaughterhouse, it introduces unprecedented levels of transparency and accountability to an industry from which consumers have been isolated by little Styrofoam trays and plastic wrap.

Perhaps best of all, this program and the information systems that make it possible are funded by the private-sector players who profit from the public good of having a safe food supply.

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Paul W. Taylor Contributing Writer

Paul W. Taylor, Ph.D., is the editor-at-large of Governing magazine. He also serves as the chief content officer of e.Republic, Governing’s parent organization, as well as senior advisor to the Governing Institute. Prior to joining e.Republic, Taylor served as deputy Washington state CIO and chief of staff of the state Information Services Board (ISB). Dr. Taylor came to public service following decades of work in media, Internet start-ups and academia. He is also among a number of affiliated experts with the non-profit, non-partisan Information Technology and Innovation Foundation (ITIF) in Washington, D.C.

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