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How technology helped reduce the impact of a bovine tuberculosis outbreak

A disease outbreak is one of the most tragic things that can happen in any industry that relies on crops or livestock. In September 2016, the Canadian beef industry was faced with an outbreak of Bovine Tuberculosis (TB) – a disease that had the potential to devastate our cattle producers’ operations.

Fortunately, in this case, the outbreak was brought under control, and its impact minimized, using radio frequency identification (RFID) technology. Read on to find out how.

What happens when disease is discovered

When the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) notified the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) that a case of bovine TB had been detected in a cow from Alberta, the first step was to identify the farm of origin. This was quickly achieved through a combination of RFID tags, brand identification tattoos, metal tags and farm tags.

The next step was an investigation so that control measures could be put in place to help prevent the spread of the disease. According to the CFIA, the investigation’s first stage involved identifying all the animals from that farm, and any that had encountered them.

Phase two of the investigation required tracing all animals that had left the infected farm in the last five years, and also tracing any animals that they had come into contact with.

During the third phase, CFIA identified the herds from which animals had been introduced into the infected herd in the past five years. The goal here was to identify the source of the infection, but the reality is that it cannot always be positively confirmed.

Once the infected animals had been identified, and farms they’d been on were traced, any adult cattle that could have come into contact with the infected animals were quarantined and tested to verify whether the disease had spread to other farms.

By the time the outbreak was contained, approximately 11,500 head of cattle had been humanely destroyed, and 14,000 were quarantined and subsequently released.

The role of traceability

Being able to trace the movement of cattle that may have been exposed to the infected herd was fundamental to the CFIA’s ability to prevent the spread and impact of the disease.

According to CFIA, animal traceability contributes to be an effective disease response and reduces the impact of a disease outbreak on individual producers and the industry as a whole. Good tracing information supports a faster response and can help limit the number of farms that must be quarantined.

The outcome of the outbreak

The TB outbreak was finally contained, but not before the beef industry experienced a significant impact. Nonetheless, without the benefits of RFID technology, the outcome would have been even worse. It’s worth noting that Canada’s world-leading cattle traceability system is made possible due to the diligence of industry members, who play a critical role in ensuring this information is collected and maintained. If this information had been incomplete or unavailable, the length of the investigation and the ability to determine the source of the infection would have been impacted significantly.

You can read more about RFID technology in these posts:

Why traceability is making Canada a world-leader in beef production

In previous posts on this blog we have seen how technology is helping improve feedlot efficiencies, and could even help with the labour crisis.

The technology responsible for much of these developments is Radio Frequency Identification (RFID), and this week we’re going to take a look at how this technology is used in the Canadian Cattle Identification Program.

To learn more, we spoke with Kori Maki-Adair, communications manager at the Canadian Cattle Identification Agency (CCIA).

“The use of RFID tags in Canada’s cattle identification program assists the Canadian cattle industry with the automation of data collection and the ability to maintain the integrity of all information,” said Kori. “In 2003, the entire Canadian cattle industry committed to a transition to this technology, and Canada’s traceability system is now world-renowned for its efficiency and effectiveness.”

What is RFID?

Every cow in Canada is fitted with an ear tag prior to leaving its farm of origin. Each tag contains an approved RFID transponder (capable of receiving and transmitting a radio signal), consisting of an encoded chip and antenna.

The tag can provide a permanent record of such basic information as where the cow originally came from, its date of birth, sex, breed and species. But the possibilities are almost endless – the tags can be used for herd management, on-farm record keeping and more. As we saw in ‘How technology is helping improve feedlot efficiencies’, they can also be used to monitor what each individual animal has been fed, and its precise intake.

Why does this ability to track information matter?

The technology gives us the ability to trace an animal through the entire chain of custody (from its farm of origin through every step of the production chain, right to the consumer). It’s a crucial tool in helping to ensure the protection of animal health, public health and food safety. For instance, in the event of a disease outbreak, tracing the origin is fast and simple.

This ability to track how each individual animal has been raised creates absolute confidence in our Canadian product, and has given Canada a reputation as a leader in the field. For retailers and restaurants it means they can make claims about the beef they serve with 100 per cent certainty that they are accurate.

“A strong and credible traceability program will help to ensure Canada remains a leading producer and marketer of beef and dairy cattle, bison and sheep, with a stable demand for products at all times,” said Kori.

How is the program implemented and enforced?

All cattle must be identified with an approved tag before leaving the farm where they were born – and it is prohibited for any operator in the beef supply chain to send, transport or receive an animal not bearing an approved tag. This is enforced by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency.

“Tags are issued to livestock operators through CCIA-authorized tag dealers,” explained Kori. “Each tag is visually marked and electronically embedded with a unique identification number which is allocated by, and subsequently recorded on, CCIA’s Canadian Livestock Tracking System (CLTS) database.” Data from each tag is transmitted to, and stored on the database, using tag readers.

The unique number of any animal’s tag remains active until the point at which the animal is exported, or processed and inspected.

Are the tags reliable?

All approved Canadian Cattle Identification Agency (CCIA) RFID tags are laboratory and field-tested to a rigid testing framework that embraces international standards,” said Kori. “They are designed to function without battery power, and have the capacity to perform for the lifetime of the animal. In addition, they are designed to function in a variety of climates and through other environmental contaminants that are known to impede line of sight technologies such as bar-codes and dangle tags,” she continued.

If an animal loses its approved tag, it must be replaced with another approved tag.

As we saw in the post ‘McDonald’s verified sustainable beef – what does that mean for Canadians?’, the quality of Canada’s traceability program was a leading factor in McDonald’s Restaurants’ decision to use Canada for their Verified Sustainable Beef Pilot Project.

Stay tuned as we explore more ways technology is being used by Canada’s beef industry.