Michigan Tracks Cattle From Birth To Plate

When you pick up a cut of beef at the store,would you like to know that animal’s life history? The technology to do this does exist – at least in Michigan, where the state requires all cattle to carry electronic ear tags.
It’s the only state that requires such tags.

Many farmers fought that requirement, but others are wondering if they might be able to use the tracking information to promote their products to consumers.

Michigan’s cattle-tracking system was forced on farmers …. because of a crisis.

Fifteen years ago … cattle in the part of the state …. started catching tuberculosis from wild deer.

Whenever a steer was discovered with the disease … health officials swooped in to find out what other farms it had passed through, what other cattle it had met along the way. Because those animals might also be carrying the disease. It was a mad scramble through farmers’ records.

Steve Halstead … Michigan’s state veterinarian …. those papers sometimes were a mess.

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The confusion cost Michigan’s farmers real money. Until they could prove that their cattle hadn’t been exposed to TB, they were banned from out-of-state markets.

So three years ago … the state of Michigan ordered cattle farmers to put special electronic tags on their animals.

Today, whenever a steer or cow leaves a farm in Michigan … or goes to a slaughterhouse …. it passes by a tag reader, and its ID number goes to a central computer that keeps track of every animal’s location.

So if it ever shows up sick

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Michigan adopted this system despite some opposition from farmers … in 2007.

Around the same time …. The US Department of Agriculture proposed a national system just like this. The USDA … said it would help control not just TB … but also scarier diseases, like foot and mouth … or mad cow disease. But ranchers like Debbie Davis … in South-central Texas …. fought it off. They called it expensive; unnecessary.

<IT WAS A WAY FOR THE GOVERNMENT TO MONITOR THE NUMBER OF ANIMALS WE OWNED, WATCH OUR BUSINESS PRACTICES, MONITOR OUR MOVEMENTS, AND BEING INDEPENDENT TEXANS, WE WEREN’T INTERESTED IN THAT.>>
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The USDA dropped the requirement for electronic ID tags.

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Now, though, some farmers are thinking — those tags might have a good side. Maybe an animal that’s been tracked its whole life … will be worth more when its sold.

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Daniel Buskirk is an expert on the beef industry at Michigan State University; he’s using the university’s own herd of cattle …. to experiment with ways to track those animals … and then make the information available to shoppers in the store.

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Last year …. when 72 of the university’s steers went to the slaughterhouse …. Buskirk set up a system that transfered the identity of each animal from its electronic ID tag … to a new set of new tags — little square bar codes.

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Those bar codes were pinned to the carcass. And as butchers went to work on it … cutting it into smaller pieces …. they used a little hand-held device to scan that first bar code …. and print new ones, for each new cut of meat. In this case, the meat just went to the university’s food service, not a grocery store.

Graduate student Tristan Foster shows how the system works.

BEEP

PRINTING LABEL SOUND

<SO THIS IS WHAT GOES ON, LIKE, TWO POUNDS OF CHUCK, OR SOMETHING
YUP, EXACTLY
SO THEN IF YOU HAVE A SMARTPHONE,
beep
I CAN SCAN THAT TWO-D BAR CODE
IT WILL GIVE INFORMATION ABOUT THE ORIGIN OF THAT BEEF;
OH WOW, WE WE EVEN GOT A PICTURE
WE HAVE AN AERIAL PICTURE OF THE FARM >>
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But it could be almost anything
WHAT GOES ON AT THE FARM, HOW THE ANIMALS ARE CARED FOR, HOW THEY MIGHT BE FED>>
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It depends on what consumers actually want to know about the meat they buy.
… and what the meat producers are willing to reveal.

Dan Charles, NPR News.

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