We have the technology

Downlands Deer.[Editor: More on the UHF RFID trial, which has appeared in the latest edition of Deer Industry News magazine, out this week.]

We now have the technology to track meat products and capture data from source to the customer in-market, it has been proved. New Zealand venison has been involved in what is believed to be a world-first trial combining the use of ultra-high frequency (UHF) radio-frequency identification (RFID) and Electronic Product Code (EPC) tagging of meat from the animal on-farm through to the customer, on the other side of the world.

UHF RFID, based on the global EPC standard, is the RFID of choice in global supply chains and is based on the global EPC standard. The EPC can be likened to a ‘licence plate’ on a car that uniquely identifies items and locations. All participants in the supply chain are able to understand and ‘see’ the what, where, when and why of shipments using this common language of business.

The relatively new technology was what piqued Deer Industry New Zealand (DINZ)’s involvement in the trial, because, while the now mandatory low frequency tags are generally fit for National Animal Identification and Tracing (NAIT) purpose, UHF RFID is increasingly being used by many large global companies to support their supply chains,” says retiring DINZ chief executive Mark O’Connor.

“Supply chain integrity and visibility are becoming increasingly important, especially since the recent misrepresentation of horsemeat in Europe,” he says, adding that DINZ was also keen to test technologies that might deliver more value and efficiency on-farm and achieve real-time actionable supply chain visibility and end-to-end traceability.

While the UHF RFID/EPC technology is not new – the kiwifruit industry is already using it and trials were run in Sweden in 2010 on fish – this is the first time it has been trialled in the complex area of chain traceability following live animals through to retail.

Trialled from late October to early December 2013

The trial was carried out by the New Zealand RFID Pathfinder Group over a six week period from late October to early December last year to look at the effectiveness of the use of UHF RFID tags and the use of the EPCglobal Network for livestock traceability. The work was a key part of the MPI  Sustainable Farming Fund supported project “Innovation and evaluation of RFID utilizing  UHF based technology in livestock.“ The researchers also decided to add another dimension using ’active’ RFID tags that use Xsense® technology to monitor the temperature of individual cartons during the entire ocean shipping period. In addition, movement of the container during the shipment to Germany via Hong Kong was tracked using global positioning technology.

A herd of 19 animals produced at Downlands Deer in Geraldine, South Canterbury, were followed all the way through to customers in Hamburg, Germany. Deer were tagged on farm with UHF EPC RFID tags and followed through an 11-point process. This included transport to Mountain River Processors in Rakaia, processing, placement of the venison into cartons, transfer to the ship at the Port of Lyttleton at Christchurch, unloading in Hamburg by the importer, Prime Meat, and transfer to its cold store before delivery to two retail customers in the German city.

Gary Hartley - Low ResReport author Gary Hartley is also general manager for sector development for GS1 New Zealand, the New Zealand member organisation of GS1. This is a global not-for-profit organisation helping development of international standards for the identification of items and locations in global supply chains.

Trial proved chain traceability at batch level

All tag data was successfully, read, identified and captured from all of the designated read points and transmitted into the EPC Information System (EPCIS), Gary reports. The trial proved chain traceability at a batch level, he says, as “there is a demonstrable and reliable association between the finished cartons of venison cuts and a batch of animals recorded in the EPCIS”.

However, while it was possible to prove close association between a small group of animals, it was found that without tracking every step of the boning process, it was difficult to establish a one-to-one connection with live animal and cut unless you are exporting whole carcases or the larger primal cuts, as cuts from each animal don’t necessarily end up in the same carton.

“It is technically possible, however, but will be determined by a supportive business case,” says Gary, adding that the findings show that EPC RFID standards and especially the EPCIS are “efficacious, effective and efficient tools for enhancing supply chain visibility and traceability.”

Faster data transfer

Another advantage highlighted by the trial was that using UHF enables faster data transfer and several animals’ (or carton tags) can be read simultaneously from a distance of metres – useful with  deer which move quickly and not necessarily in a straight line. Low frequency RFID requires a much closer reading, centimetres away from the tag.

More research is to be done into the above on-farm benefits, including the integration of sensor technology and the costs and efficacy benefits arising from the technology’s more ubiquitous use in other industries, says O’Connor (see Tony Pearse comments below).

However, the two RFID technologies are not compatible, which would mean two separate tags would be required for each animal, each requiring its own reader.

“A low frequency RFID reader can’t read the UHF tags and vice-versa,” says Hartley, adding that the performance of UHF technology has “vastly improved” in recent years, since NAIT first developed its tagging system designed to track the animals from farm to plant.

“At the time, low frequency tags were the only ones that had ever been used for tagging animals around the world. In terms of added cost, Gary says both the tags and readers are similarly priced in both technologies at this time. “The UHF vendor community is huge now and growing, and there is healthy competition, so prices have never been this low before and the variety of hardware from around the world is impressive.”

GS1 New Zealand has been in close liaison with NAIT, which has provided for the use of EPC numbers into its system architecture, he says, adding that he believes, in time, there will be a migration over to UHF.

More research is needed to corrobate and validate the findings, the report says, adding that it recommends investigation of the use of EPC standards on alternative species, such as sheep.

The collaborative research was completed with funding from the Ministry for Primary Industries’ Sustainable Farming Fund, GS1 New Zealand, Deer Industry New Zealand, FarmIQ, ANZCO Foods, Downlands Deer and Mountain River Processors. NAIT and BT9 also supported the project.

DINZ is happy with the outcome of the trial. “Tags which were ‘fit for purpose’ were identified and venison from tagged animals were successfully traced to a supermarket in Europe,” says Mark.

UHF’s potential production advantages

DINZ producer manager Tony Pearse says it’s not only the increased read rate and greater read distances, there are other production advantages of UHF RFID used in conjunction with the EPC system – as yet unproven – that have been discussed separately by the Pathfinder Group.

The real breakthrough, from his perspective, will be when, “you’re able to take that tag and put the information directly into the database at the point of reading in real time.”

With UHF read now ranges of five to seven metres – and greater distances to come as technology evolves – there’s an opportunity for simultaneous reading from the gateway in the field for mustering stock inventory, for example, following high country helicopter mustering  of stock in more remote locations, which might give an early alert on poaching for example or other problems as well..

“Longer-term, you might be able to use quick reading to match hinds to calves, as well-bonded pairs often stick together. Another idea is to place a weight pad at a feed station with a safe feed supplement and get a record of weight growth over time,” says Tony. “The beauty is that the information is readily captured and available to be all fed into relevant productivity databases from the field rather than yarding and weighing. With UHF this activity too will benefit from data capture speed, and greater flexibility of use ”

In time, he believes the information stored in the tags and automatically uploaded to the system could  seamlessly link to the in plant-EPC systems and has the “give back”, with, for example, cutting yields on breed lines, or however farmers group their animals for processing .

“The UHF RFID tags give the ability to write much more information than you can with LF RFID, which only enables a 16 character unique ID . You could possibly also upload pedigree lines, tag numbers for witholding drugs and other animal health information, if that is required in the future,” says Tony.

The technology could possibly also be used to effectively tag velvet with a unique New Zealand code via GS-1 systems and guarantee country-of-origin labelling and the associated standards  A ‘blue skies’ workshop, as part of the SFF project, confirmed that the deer industry with its smaller size, but sophistication, could be an ideal industry model to further evaluate UHF tags in action, he commented.

This article has appeared in Deer Industry News (August/September 2013) and is reproduced here with permission.

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