Farming industry urged to track livestock online

Foot-and-mouth crisis expected to provide impetus

          LONDON (03/15/2001) - Britain's foot-and-mouth outbreak is expected to hasten the introduction of new technology and online systems to trace livestock and other agricultural produce.

          The crisis could provide the impetus for major changes in the way produce is tracked from farms to supermarkets.

          The outbreak has followed other setbacks in the farming industry, which have already forced many improvements in monitoring cattle. Detailed passports were introduced because of BSE and a central database, the Cattle Movement Service, went live in 1998. It is now almost comprehensive.

          Archie Sains, industry adviser for the Meat and Livestock Commission, said: "Ninety-eight percent of the national herd is on that database and all animal movements are recorded. As far as new technology goes, the greatest improvements will be in the DNA profiling area."

          This relates to beef, where currently batches of 50 hindquarters at a time are tracked from the slaughter halls onwards. DNA profiling being trialled will allow individual carcasses to be traced. Marks & Spencer this week announced it was adopting DNA separation techniques.

          Britain's 8 million cattle are being successfully tagged and monitored. But a full tagging system for the country's sheep population of more than 40 million would mean a huge cost to farmers. Sains says: "On the day of the sale at Longtown [a known contact point for foot-and-mouth], there were 15,000 sheep in the market. To read every ear number and record it is a nightmare."

          Instead, wireless technology is being tested to read electronically numbered sheep. The government hopes such a system can help eradicate scrapie disease.

          Pigs will also need to be tagged properly in future and electronic identification methods using ear tags or skin implants are likely.

          There are high hopes that an increase in the use of computers by farmers will enable them to add information to the online cattle database.

          But Chris Marshall, chief executive of supply-chain software developer Food-Trak, said farmers needed to instigate a cultural change. The suppliers they sell to are the ones taking the lead in pressing for new technology, he added.

          His system allows farmers to record everything they do to their crops and livestock, and upload the information to a central server. They receive advice on feeds and when to use fertilisers. At the end of the supply chain, retailers can scan a bag of potatoes and establish the field and farm it has come from, and how it had been treated and stored.

          But while the U.K. has around 110,000 farmers, the system only has 1,000 growers using it at present.

          Nick Evans, managing director of the First 4 Farming portal, said: "Farming adopts change at a snail's pace. The big changes have come about through intervention, such as the Common Agricultural Policy. In 1992, for the first time ever, we had the size of farms recorded accurately. Farmers had to do that to get their subsidy cheques."

          Marshall added: " What's really lacking is a government thrust to make this all work, and individuals' motivation to embrace new technology."

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