Opinion: NZ traceability quest must embrace standards

Interoperability is a key concept in traceability and you achieve it through adopting standards

Beef and deer are important industries to New Zealand. Ian Corney of the National Animal Identification & Tracing project (NAIT) is dead right in emphasising the need for this country to have beef and deer traceability systems that work and are robust (Computerworld, June 18). But what does that mean exactly?

The question is best answered by considering the basic reasons for traceability in the first place. First, there’s the demand coming from international markets for meat products to have proven quality and transparent history. Second, there’s the need to be able to quickly identify and isolate animals that threaten the integrity of food products further down the supply chain or that might cause on-farm health issues. Foot and mouth disease is the obvious example. The third reason to pursue traceability lies with its contribution to productivity gain in the production, processing and supply of animals and meat products.

It is the international nature of New Zealand’s beef and deer industries that makes them — and traceability — so important. Our products need to keep up with consumer preferences and market entry requirements in Europe, Asia and North America. To retain and grow markets, we need to limit the risk of any widespread damage to livestock herds or meat products. And to remain internationally cost competitive, we need to secure all the productivity gains that might be available in the supply chain.

Starting with this big picture, it surely follows that New Zealand needs a traceability system that is also international — a system that has track and trace capability from the paddock in Canterbury or the King Country to the supermarket shelf in London or Tokyo, and that enables trading partners in many places to exchange information with accuracy and confidence.

The key word is “interoperability”, which is the ability of trading partners to operate together with speed, flexibility and confidence. And for this to happen, they need common information standards — a common language for doing business along the supply chain, here and internationally.

Corney emphasises the technical complexities faced by the NAIT in its design and implementation of a beef and deer traceability system for all New Zealand. Again, he is correct but of even more importance I would argue are issues of interoperability and commonality in business language. It is more important to clearly identify what is being moved along the supply chain and to make meaningful information available to trading partners, than it is to have particular hardware or software in place for data gathering and storage. There are certainly key decisions to be made on RFID tags, readers and so on, but more fundamental is the selection of standards for identification and information exchange.

There is much activity on RFID in New Zealand and worldwide, in various industries. Even so, the concept of interoperability is often overlooked, at least in the early stages. Where information cannot be commonly understood and exchanged between trading partners then the supply chain will become costly and inefficient to manage.

Standardisation might not be the most exciting part of a new technology roll out, but it will make or break the viability of any traceability system over the long term. In a globalised economy with diverse trading relationships, adherence to international standards will surely become a fundamental requirement for interoperability.

Of course, interoperability is critical at home as well, as the Australian beef industry has learnt. Our trans-Tasman neighbours are more advanced in the whole area of livestock traceability but Ian King, chief executive of Aus-Meat, a national industry standards body, says the initial design of Australia’s National Livestock Information System (NLIS) lacked the ability to link meat products back to live animals. Only recently has the supply chain been integrated in this way, with the Australian Meat Industry Language and Standards Committee introducing GS1 standards as a common, international language for all components of the industry — production, livestock trading, meat processing and marketing.

If New Zealand were now to adopt the same approach as Australia, as Corney suggests it might, there would be a strong focus on standards, and on ensuring the same standards are applied in all areas of the beef and deer industry. Decisions on hardware and software, and on RFID vendors, would then have to meet the fundamental test of interoperability through the use of common, international standards. Indeed, those standards would be the only sacred cow on the farm. That is the best hope of this country’s meat industry achieving workable, robust traceability.

Gary Hartley is general manager of sector development for GS1 New Zealand, formerly EAN New Zealand. GS1 is a not-for profit, standards agency responsible for administering the GS1 system of bar coding, e-commerce and RFID technologies.

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