Tracking cattle from pasture to plate, a new spin on marketing Michigan beef

Jun 4, 2013

Michigan cows are making national headlines. Last week, NPR’s Morning Edition covered a story by Dan Charles on the cattle tracking program in Michigan.

The state of Michigan requires cattle to have electronic ear tags. In fact, it is the only state that requires the tags.

This mattered little to the general public until now. Some farmers are looking at how the tags could help consumers learn more about where meat is from and how it was raised.

Michigan Radio’s Mary Jo Wagner first reported on the tracking system back in 2001. Originally, Michigan started the electronic tracking system in order to monitor cattle for tuberculosis, mad cow disease, and foot-and-mouth disease.

Now, the local food movement and recent exposés on cruelty in the meat industry have given the tags a new use.

Charles reports:

…some farmers are thinking those ID tags might have a good side. Maybe an animal that has been tracked its whole life will be worth more when it's sold.

"There's a large number of people that would like to know where their food comes from, just understand that better," says Daniel Buskirk, an expert on the beef industry at Michigan State University.

[…]

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

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 handheld 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.

But the same system eventually could produce a label that would go on a package of meat in the store. "Then if you have a smartphone," Buskirk says, "I can scan that two-dimensional bar code, and it will give information about the origin of that beef."

The local food movement has gained widespread popularity. While the clip from Portlandia below is a humorous take on the trend, the demand for locally grown food is no joke. Back in 2011, the USDA estimated it was a $4.8 billion business.  

Two years ago, Michigan Radio’s Emily Fox reported on the first pilot program of the tracking system.  Michigan State University had kiosks in the cafeterias and bar codes on table tents that students could scan with smart phones. The scans gave information on how the beef was raised and what the cow’s diet had been.

Overall, the program provided 4,000 pounds of local beef to MSU cafeterias.

Farmers have mixed opinions about the electronic tracking system. Some consider it too expensive and worry it's an invasion of privacy. Perhaps the potential to cash in on the local food movement will change their minds. 

-Julia Field, Michigan Radio Newsroom