Meet Your Beef--Via Bar Code Info

RFID tagHow much would you like to know about the animal that may be contributing a roast to your dinner?  Would you like to meet in "person"? Probably not (though some people would). Would you like to see its photo? Maybe not. But what if, by scanning the bar code on the package, you could learn this type of information: where the animal was raised, what hormones or antibiotics (if any) it was treated with, what vaccines were administered, what type of diet it was fed, and how old it was when slaughtered? 


This kind of information may be available to you in the future via an app on your smartphone.  And here's more exciting news: YOU can help scientists decide what information will appear on the electronic device.  How can you do that?  Just write a comment at the end of this article.  Tell the project team what information you would like access to. Your ideas will be sent to the scientists and computer specialists working on this 2-year, multi-institutional project.


Food process engineer Dr. Timothy Bowser, a member of the Shelf Life Advice Advisory Board, is one of 10 investigators working on this project. Oklahoma State University, where he teaches, is the lead institution. Other facilities involved are the University of Arkansas, the Samuel Roberts Noble Foundation, Top 10 Produce, Stoner Family Farms, and Hana Micron America.  Sponsors of the projects are the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA). The project is funded by the USDA. 


The name of the organization handling this project is quite a mouthful. It's "The National Institute for Whole Chain Traceability and Food Safety."   Its primary goal is to improve the safety of beef (and eventually other food products) sold in the U.S. by improving traceability.  Current traceability methods are incomplete and inadequate, leading to delays and difficulties in identifying sources of contamination. The experts working on this project will be building and testing a more efficient way to trace products and causes of disease outbreaks. 


The app being developed by this project team will enable the food industry and those who oversee it to quickly access information about the origin, handling, feed, and movements of beef cattle and beef products as they are transferred from one facility to another.  This will make it possible to efficiently locate and remove risky animals from the food chain, thereby avoiding an outbreak of foodborne illness. Should an outbreak occur, investigators will be able to find the source more easily and quickly eliminate the spread of disease-causing pathogens. 


To decide exactly what information should be embedded in the app, team members are seeking input from anyone who has an interest or investment in the farm-to-fork system, including food producers, packers, vendors, distributers, and consumers.  The system data may include marketing information, packing dates, facility names, and much more. Beef growers, processors, distributors, and retailers could upload information to the database. Consumers could scan codes on meat and retrieve data from the database about the product they are interested in purchasing or learning more about.


One of the goals of the project is to provide useful information to consumers and get feedback from them. Consumers might be able to access farm photos, producer stories, product grading information, and even recipes. Consumers may be able to find out if the animal this beef came from was a local  resident. Consumer feedback might also be sought to gather information for improving products.   


Customers would have access to information associated with a meat product even if it was sold at a meat counter.  The seller would need to generate or duplicate the code that came with the meat product. This might look like a bar code printed on an adhesive-backed label that also showed the item's weight and price.  Theoretically, the seller would be able to input additional information about the product into the system. For instance, the seller could log in the date of receipt of the raw product, its condition, and processing details.


Note: The photo shows an RFID tag. RFID stands for "radio-frequency identification." An RFID tag is an “intelligent” bar code that can “talk” to a network. It's used to track cattle and other goods/products. The RFID tag allows automated identification and tracking. Some tags don’t need batteries –they are powered by and respond to an electromagnetic field. The field energizes the tag, which responds by broadcasting its unique information. The tag does not need to be within sight of the field generator, making the process of identification very convenient and simple.


Some data to be put on the app will not be of interest to the average consumer, but it will be extremely useful to governmental agencies and various types of businesses in the food industry. Embedded in the app will be different information to meet the needs of different groups.  The app will be designed to give various groups the privacy they need.  For example, if a company supplies information on the type and brand of feed it uses, this data might be accessible to governmental bodies but not to the company's competitors.  Consumers will have access to information that would be meaningful and useful to them.


Please participate in this project via your comments below.  What would you like to know about that hunk of beef you're eyeing?





Timothy J. Bowser, Ph.D. , Oklahoma State University, Dept. of Biosystems and Agricultural Engineering


Michael Buser, Ph.D.  Oklahoma State University, Biosystems and Agricultural Engineering


I would want to know about hormones, genetic alterations, and what sort of diet it was fed.

Fascinating research!  I'd love to have the dietary and hormone treatment history available when I'm shopping.  Also I'd like to know the living conditions of the animal -- for example, cows that don't get to roam around and live in cramped quarters certainly will not be as healthy as those that do.  Great idea.  Can't wait for it to be available for iPhones.    Consider doing the same for other products too -- chicken etc.   Also, the histories behind derivative products would be useful.  For example, not all organic milk companies are equal -- because the marketing language "free-range," "organic" etc. is poorly regulated by the FDA, consumers have a hard time understanding the differences among products.  E.g., one farm may give the animals significantly healthier diet and living conditions, which unquestionably results in better derivative milks and cheeses.   Consumers would also like to know the environmental impact of their purchasing decisions -- maybe have icons for "locally produced" and "farmer owned," for example?   Great work! 


You must be logged in to post a comment or question.

Sign In or Register for free.