24 May 1996

Electronic tagging:Calls become louder

All sectors of the industry are clamouring for improved traceability, yet MAFF has still to develop a scheme that satisfies all. Rebecca Austin reports

INDUSTRY leaders are united in their belief that electronic tagging is the long-term solution to restore confidence in beef and the industrys future.

Traceability is paramount if confidence is to resume and the industry regain and uphold its integrity, say representatives from the main industry organisations including NFU, the Meat and Livestock Commission and the National Cattle Association.

With increasing volumes of data and cries for full traceability the establishment of a national cattle database is under consideration. To speed up its establishment an all-industry working party has been set up by MAFF. This includes industry representatives such as the NFU, the Livestock Auctioneers Association and the Federation of Fresh Meat Wholesalers. The first detailed meeting with MAFF was due this week. The party is set to publish a report early this autumn.

Chairman, Bill Madders, sees data collection and management as a joint industry effort. However, he believes there should be a single point of contact so only those with a legitimate reason can access the database.

"MAFF runs three cattle databases already, so there are two options for a national cattle database: either link existing programmes together to lead towards a central function or develop a new system," says Mr Madders. "Now the technology is here the latter option should only cost £3m to £5m to set up. This is nothing compared with the millions government and EU are currently paying in compensation."

Capital costs for establishing the database should come from central funds – either government or EU.

Banbury markets Jim Watson, also LAA chairman, agrees. "If MAFF takes the business for cattle identification and handling centrally it is down to them to pay for it – as well as the tagging," he says.

Chris Brown, MLC cattle strategy manager, says the catch-all knowledge of an animals history is central to consumer reassurance.

To achieve this MLC would like to see the industry move towards electronic tagging once there is an ISO standard. He is backed by Gerald Cowan, chairman of Farm Assured British Beef and Lamb. He wants to see an unbreakable and tamper proof traceability system introduced.

"Ultimately implants would be the answer, but in the mean time electronic tagging shows a great deal of benefits," he says.

Rowland Kershaw Dalby hints MAFF is considering setting up a pilot scheme on electronic tagging through the Mature Beef Scheme. If, after four or five years, the system proves successful it is likely it will be extended to the rest of the industry.

MAFF status on traceability

&#8226 Seeking and considering industry ideas for an identification system based on compulsory cattle passports and double tagging.

&#8226 No immediate plans for a national cattle database on cattle movement. "The EU scheme needs an overhaul, so at this stage it is pointless MAFF instituting a national cattle database," says a MAFF spokesman.

&#8226 No immediate plans to make electronic tagging compulsory as an international standard for such a scheme has yet to be standardised.

&#8226 No plans for a national quality assurance scheme. "Such schemes are best worked out by themselves among retailers. Once they have come to any conclusions, MAFF will see if any legislation needs to be introduced," says a MAFF spokesman.

Traceability is vital to reassure consumers that beef is as good as it looks. So why must the industry wait so long for MAFFto take the lead?