How RFID tags can track livestock

BANGKOK - After the bird flu virus killed 83 tigers at the Sri Racha Tiger Zoo last year, officials tried to identify the shops that had sold the infected chicken carcasses.
calendar icon 3 February 2005
clock icon 8 minute read
How RFID tags can track livestock - BANGKOK - After the bird flu virus killed 83 tigers at the Sri Racha Tiger Zoo last year, officials tried to identify the shops that had sold the infected chicken carcasses. However, there were questions remaining. No one knew where they had been processed or on which farm they had been raised, as well as in which markets the other parts of those chickens had been sold.

However, this situation could have been very different if there had been an implementation of radio frequency identification (RFID) technology because RFID can be used on farms to tag animals and the information can be carried throughout the food chain process.

This RF tag technology provides traceability and can track information from the dining table back to the farm, said Dr Vivat Chavananikul, a former head of the Animal Husbandry Department at the faculty of Veterinary Science of Chulalongkorn University.

An ID tag, when it is used on a farm raising livestock, can record information such as the date of birth, weight, vaccine or medicine, the farm's location and name. The information of farm location and farm name must be used in the food chain process including production, animal transport, slaughter, processing and product transport to wholesale or retail shops and on to the kitchen, he said.

"When we buy pork, we can trace it back to which farm the pig had been raised on," he said.

Food traceability is very appropriate given the Government's "food safety" policy and its plan to lead Thailand to be a "kitchen of the world," said Dr Vivat.

In addition, food safety was also required for the export of products to countries such as Japan and in Europe, where there were strong regulations to check the safety of imported food, he explained.

If a food container has a problem, such as the situation at the Sri Racha Tiger Zoo, traceability could give not only names of the farms and abattoirs, but also exact locations of retail shops selling meat, bones and the innards.

"At present, most livestock farms do not have a traceability system so if those targetted importing countries seriously enforce their regulations, we will lose our competitiveness," he said.

To help educate farm owners, the Animal Husbandry Department will join private companies IE Technology and Silicon Craft Technology to run a RFID testbed project. It aims to test animal tags based on RFID chips and to promote the technology as well as a farm management system to livestock owners, said IE Technology's managing director Dr Naiyavud Wongkomet.

The six-month pilot project is scheduled to start by the end of February at Chulalongkorn Univeristy's farm in Nakhon Pathom. The companies plan to implant RFID chips in 200-300 animals, including pigs, oxen, buffaloes and sheep.

The cost will be about one million baht and IE Technology expects to seek R&D funds from the National Electronics and Computer Technology Centre (Nectec).

Dr Naiyavud said the budget would cover RFID readers, an automatic food feeding station, network equipment and related tools. IE will develop system management and it has joined with Silicon Craft to develop various types of RFID chips to fit each kind of animal.

In addition to this research, a few private pig farms had implemented RFID technology a few years ago but only one farm was still operating with the technology, according to Dr Vivat.

SPM Farm, a giant pig farm in Ratchaburi, has already implemented RFID chips to control the amount of food for each sow, of which it has around 8,000 breeders.

The high-tech farm groups 40 pregnant sows to a pen where they have space to move about. It has implanted RFID tags in an ear of each sow as well as having automatic feeding stations and an electronic system to control the amount of food.

Sorraphon Nitikanchana, the farm owner's son, said SPM Farm had implemented RFID technology over a decade ago in order that a computer system could reduce human error and costs.

"Basically, we wanted to reduce labour costs by implementing an automatic feeding station in each pen," he said, adding that the farm also wanted to improve the accuracy of the amount of food provided to each sow because it was difficult for the work-force to control or deliver enough food to every pregnant breeder.

Furthermore, the automatic system could also reduce food spillage from containers that always occurred when food was distributed manually.

"We believe that computers can control a precise amount of food to each sow and we have a pipe to deliver food to each feeding station," he said.

The feeding process starts when a sow with an implanted RFID tag is hungry and walks to a one-way gate leading to a feeding station in its pen. An RFID reader will detect the information and check its ID including its number, age and weight and send the data for the food quota.

If the system finds the pig has already been fed that day, the gate will remain closed. In contrast, if it has not yet eaten, the system will deliver the food to the feeding station based on the sow's weight and age.

When it has finished eating an exit gate will open. If there is another sow waiting in front of an entrance gate, the door will open and the process will start again.

The system helps increase efficiency because staff will know which pigs are fed and which are not. It could help reduce repeat consumption and every pig can have enough food to suit its needs, said Dr Vivat who is also president of Thai Swine Veterinary Society.

However, the RFID pioneer farm also has a maintenance cost problem. Sorraphon said they needed to invest a lot in the technology and machines because the system and the RFID chips had been imported. The maintenance costs were also high and after-sales service was slow, he noted.

"After using the system for years, it is time to change to a new system, but we are hesitating to see if we still want to invest in the technology because it is not yet clear whether the costs we can save will be greater than what we will need to spend on a new system," he said.

Fortunately, there is hope now from the Thai RFID Cluster, an organisation initiated by Nectec and local RFID companies who want to see the development of RFID technology here and who have teamed up to promote local RFID chips and a management system.

Dr Itti Rittaporn, director of Thai Micro Electronics Centre (TMEC), said the clustering team wanted to prove that Thais had the capability to develop and deploy a total RFID solution at affordable prices.

He said Silicon Craft had already designed an RFID chip and would soon go into mass production while some companies had developed a system, and Nectec and other local companies could produce RFID readers.

"We project a local need for at least 200,000 RFID chips this year that will be used in farms, for an intelligent library, logistics and inventory control," he said.

But, before any mass implementation, at least two issues need to be resolved.

The first one is to allocate a radio frequency and to regulate the emission power, said Dr Itti, noting that the National Telecommunications Commission needed to allocate a frequency band for RFID technology (See box at right).

Another issue was to have a common ID standard, Dr Vivat explained.

Citing farms as an example, a common ID for animal tags must be used to identify the locations of livestock farms and their names and this information must be carried throughout the processing system.

"We must have a common national ID so that it will become a standard for traceability," he said. Dr Vivat proposed a project called "National Identification System for Animals and Flocks" based on a French national standard.

He has proposed using at least an 11-digit number of which the first two digits would be used to identify the province name and the next three digits would be reserved for a code for the farm. The other six digits would be customised to fit the codes of each food production process.

For example, a pig farm could segment the sixth and seventh digits for the year of birth and the remaining four digits could be the number of a pigs in a farm.

"The first five digits of the number is a common ID which must be used throughout the food chain production," he said, adding that for exports, there must be a country code digit in front of the province's code to identify that the products are from Thailand.

The common ID can serve the table-to-farm traceback ability and can be also apply to farm and flock animals such as chickens. If one flock is impacted, the information can be easily and quickly traced back, he said.

Furthermore, the information could be used to benefit farm owners as they can keep track of their breeding.

Above all, this is a policy issue. If the Government sees the importance, it will need to address the standard, he added.

Source: Asia Intelligence Wire - 1st February 2005

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