From pen-and-paper to RFID tracking

Janette James

The island of Vanuatu is set to become only the second country in the world to operate the National Livestock Identification System (NLIS), the Australian tracking system for cattle that is compatible with EU traceability requirements.

Vanuatu Abattoirs Limited (VAL Pacific) is a small abattoir servicing local butchers in Port Vila, the capital of the Republic of Vanuatu. The company has been exporting chilled and aged frozen beef to countries throughout the Pacific for some time, but it wants to expand to Europe. Neighbouring Australia has very strict traceability requirements, with legislation comparable to European food safety laws. The country’s National Livestock Identification System (NLIS) was launched in 1999. VAL is working towards incorporation of the NLIS into its own export systems because it is seeking European market access, and Australia’s NLIS is compatible with European traceability regulations.

VAL hopes to be able to kill both the Australian and European birds (or cows, as the case may be) with one RFID stone.

Computerised weigh grading

In March 2006, VAL launched a new computerized weigh grading system from Triton Commercial Systems, a New Zealand firm. The system supplies information about live and dressed weights of animals from local farmers delivered to VAL for export and for domestic butchers. For the past three years, VAL has used Triton’s carton management system, which produces barcode labels for products due for export. The firm’s employees use handheld scanning equipment when loading to accurately invoice meat for export.

Previously, cartons were hand-stencilled, and when loading for export, their weights were manually recorded and tallied before sealing a container. Accuracy was very difficult to maintain with such an antiquated system. Now, with the hand-held scanners, there is much greater accuracy and the system allows for a complete stock-taking of inventory at any given time. All VAL packaging, including cartons, vacuum packaging and product identification labels, displays the certified organic status of the product.

VAL hopes to link the Australian NLIS as a module into the new weigh grading system, along with a special reader, thus adding computerized, radio-frequency identification (RFID) traceability to the company’s meat processing. An RFID tag is a tiny device that contains a computer chip and an antenna.

When attached to a product or animal, the RFID tag receives and responds to radiofrequency queries from an RFID transceiver. The data transmitted in this way can provide identification and location details of the tagged object.

NLIS and RFID

The NLIS uses machine-readable RFID devices to track cattle. The devices can be an ear tag, or a rumen bolus (which lodges in the cow’s reticulum). Cattle are tagged with NLIS devices only once in their life.

The devices are read electronically as they travel along the livestock chain. When read, the cattle owner’s property identification code (PIC) is recorded and linked to the NLIS device and stored in the secure central NLIS database. A record of an animal’s whereabouts throughout its life, and a history of which other animals it has interacted with is thus maintained. This centrally stored electronic history is what enables farm-to-fork traceability of each animal and its products within seconds.

The incorporation of the NLIS module into the Triton system is currently in the planning stage. At present, traceability is carried out via a manual system in conjunction with careful record keeping by the supplying farms. This manual system may continue to be viable for a short period due to the small numbers of animals that are processed for export. But Vanuatu’s farmers are increasing their stockholdings as organic Vanuatu beef is rapidly gaining a favourable international reputation due to the island’s tropical conditions and how its cattle are raised.

To guarantee the beef as organic, a clear separation between organic and non-organic products must be maintained at all times. Traceability to the farm of origin is provided through the processing and documenting system. Full documentation to support organic processing is vital to ensure the product is not compromised from farm to export load-out.

For VAL, traceability has historically been done manually, but as beef exports from Vanuatu increase, farmers now have no choice but to introduce more advanced systems.

Janette James ( valpac@vanuatu.com.vu ) is the general manager of Vanuatu Abattoirs Limited.

02 August 2006

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