Road hogs

by Jim Bray

CALGARY, Alta. – There are road hogs, and there are roads that carry hogs. And before long, roads that carry hogs will require the use of a new tracking and reporting system to help ensure the health of the nation’s meat supply.

And while this probably won’t have a huge impact on the transportation industry over how it works already, one of the people involved in creating the new program thinks the pending changes could offer trucking companies new opportunities to better service their customers.

The program is called PigTrace and, according to Jeff Clark, Canadian Pork Council traceability manager, the idea first and foremost is to help ensure – and expedite – food safety.

“It relates to animal health issues and our responses to foreign animal disease and/or food safety issues, food recall, things of that nature,” he explains. “And while we’re really just looking at live animal movements, we’re trying to structure it so food processors can trace food back right to the originating farm.”

According to Portage Online, the program will require hog movements to be reported within 48 hours and make Canada the first country with a national swine traceability system.

Clark says the program has been under development since 2003, but they’re finally getting close to rolling it out – though it may take another year for all the i’s to be dotted and t’s crossed. When that happens, however, the new database and reporting methodologies should help ensure not only the health of the supply chain, but also the quick tracking of any unhealthy animals that may be discovered.

The idea was born after what Clark refers to as a recent history of food recalls that were expensive for everyone involved, mainly because movement tracking documentation wasn’t easily accessible to those who needed it.

“Instead of doing a narrow trace back that limits the amount of product recalled,” Clark says, “the recalls have been quite broad because the knowledge of exactly what products might be contaminated or diseased isn’t there.”

Clark says one such high-profile incident was an outbreak of BSE in Europe, the well-publicized ‘Mad Cow Disease,’ which he says was devastating not only to the European agricultural economy but the overall economy as well – including tourism and all the agriculture support systems. He says PigTrace program developers are using such incidents as learning opportunities. One ailment the PigTrace program targets is foot and mouth disease, which Clark says represents their worst-case scenario. “It’s highly contagious,” he says, “it’s got a high mortality rate and it can spread between species – so it can go from cattle to goats to hogs to sheep, all cloven-hoofed animals.”

Clark also cites what he calls “foreign animal diseases” that aren’t in Canada currently, but which could affect Canadian agriculture drastically if they do show up – diseases such as the highly contagious avian influenza, outbreaks of which cropped up in the Fraser Valley in years past and, more recently, in Saskatchewan.

There are also “production-based diseases” which Clark says aren’t necessarily reportable but which can still cause a lot of financial losses. “So we can see the benefits in getting on top of an investigation and trying get the disease out of the producers’ herds.”

The new reporting regime should be a big step forward from the system in place before PigTrace where, Clark says, “You might locate a farm where you have some diseased animals, so you quarantine them or you euthanize them – but you also need to find out where else the animals from that farm may have gone.”

The PigTrace program is trying to consolidate all the movement information and will be accompanied by regulatory changes under the federal Health of Animals Act administered by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency. “There are proposed amendments to include swine,” Clark says, noting that while there is limited coverage in the rules that cover cattle, bison and sheep (mostly for identification using ear tags), “we’re really the first commodity to start looking at the laws for farm-to-farm movement.”

Clark envisions the system as a way to help ensure the markets that buy Canadian pork – and other hoofed animals, eventually – can be confident they’re getting a safe, quality product.

And while safety is the prime motivation, Clark says the PigTrace program could also give Canadian meat a competitive advantage around the world. “There’s certainly interest in international markets,” he says, “so once we’re set up and proficient I think it’ll give us an edge in the international marketplace as well.”

PigTrace infrastructure is already in place and is basically just waiting for the new regulations to come into effect. “People can access our database on the Web, via peripheral devices like mobile phones, or with their own software,” Clark says, noting they’ve also created the ability to capture additional information above and beyond what’s actually required by the program, to enhance producers’ business interests. “They can create an online account and see all their business transactions there should they want to.”

So, what does all this have to do with the trucking industry?

Clark sees it as an opportunity for transporters to offer a value-added service to their customers. He claims to have talked to some truckers who “keep very good information on the movements they’re doing, so it’s very conceivable that a transport firm could report movement information on a producer’s behalf.”

The regulations allow such reporting to be deferred to a third party – such as a trucker – Clark says, so “whether that’s a fee-for-service or whatever, we’ve built (the system) to allow it and if a trucking firm wants to take advantage I certainly encourage them to do so. We’d be willing to help make that happen as much as possible, too.”

It doesn’t sound like it’ll be particularly onerous for the trucker, either. “The vast majority of our movements are called group movements,” Clark says, “so there are no identifiers on the individual animals. All we really care about is knowing where a movement originated, where it ended up, how many pigs are on the truck and its licence plate.”

While the authorities may not know the specific animals involved, they will know that if, for example, a shipment originated at two specific farms and one farm’s animals are infected, the disease was probably carried to the other farm on that particular movement as well.

The bottom line is that the PigTrace program will bring about added efficiencies while helping to ensure food safety, Clark says.  As for the transportation industry requirements, Clark says a document with the base movement fields filled out will be required to accompany a load, though he also says most truckers are doing that already. If it isn’t a big deal for truckers, then, why are the PigTrace people bothering trumpeting their plans to the industry? Basically, Clark says, they just want the truckers to know what’s happening, to be in the loop.

“We want them to be informed and we will be making every effort to let them know it’s happening when the time is right,” Clark says. “They should know it will be a requirement for their customers and that there’s potentially an opportunity for transportation firms to report that information on behalf of their customers.”

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