National Livestock Identification Scheme (NLIS) some producers say that this is one of the biggest cons of all time, I’m inclined to agree. When NLIS was first made compulsory for producers were told that Australia and overseas customers were demanding a trace back system from the farm gate to the plate. At the same time as NLIS was being rolled out the US had problems with BSE and were shut out of markets like Korea and Japan for some years. The USA does not have any trace back system but they are finding their way back into Korean and Japanese beef market at the expense of Australian beef with all the bells and whistles of the NLIS trace back system.
Domestically one large supermarket when queried about the horse meat scandal stated that consumers were not concerned about which farm their meat originated from. It seems customers are confident that supermarkets know which property their meat originates from. I hope that this sort of statement is never put to the test, if it is it will show what a hollow traceability system we really have. The facts are, that the system in the initial period was supposed to trace meat from the farm gate to the plate, if this was the case it would be good however it seems this was an expensive option and the whole thing stops at the kill floor.
Any trip to an abattoir will show as soon as an animal is dispatched its ears are sliced off, and electronic NLIS tags are thrown into a bucket, that is the end of our trace back system. The carcass is then boned and saleable meat is packed into cartons, say six scotches from different beasts being packaged into one carton. Each carton has a date when packaged, plus a barcode that allows the meat in this carton to be traced back to a batch of cattle making any given carton traceable, but not necessarily the meat inside. The problem is compounded when cartons leave the processing facility, as an example a major retailer, wholesaler may decide to run a special on rumps, their buyers scan Australia looking for cheap rumps.
If people start to fall ill through eating rump steak bought by the retailer, wholesaler how would one identify where the problem started from, 20 t of 20 kg cartons 10,000 cartons. Bear in mind that all the containers have been mixed and matched and all identification of origin and property have long since gone. At very best we may be able to determine which processing plant the meat came from, rather than a property. I have used wholesalers, retailers, and many in between that not only deal with retailers but the food service sector and there is all sorts of meat going overseas. Repackaging of meat taking its original label off and then repackaging with one’s own label is a common practice; this of course makes a problem even worse, how on earth can you now trace back to the abattoir , let alone the farm, remember the last tangible trace of the animals are in a rubbish bin mixed up with thousands of other NLIS tags.
Processors discount heavily any cattle with no tags or cattle that have an orange tag; however the meat of these discounted animals is sold at the same price as the animals with correct tags, it means the farmer gets less and the processor has a much larger mark up. Farmers were given lots of assurances when the NLIS tags system was introduced, one of the big things producers were told there would be much more feedback, this expectation has not been met, As reducing stock theft was another big plus; however, tags can be simply removed and replaced with little effort. Firebrands, cold brands and tattoos are much more difficult to replace. It would seem even to the casual observer the NLIS system has created wealth for a chosen few, it has created jobs in the red tape sector, and as is the norm the cost is borne by the producer.
At present the cost is thrust back onto producers who least can afford the cost. NLIS is another example like MSA, where huge amounts of producer funds have gone to implement a world class process that would have clearly given us a market advantage. Sadly producers have seen that advantage evaporates as others in the industry dilute the programme to suit themselves, without a care in the world for the industry as a whole. It is only a matter of time before the rest of the world sees what a flawed system that we have developed in Australia. When this happens then the Australian meat industry will suffer the ultimate consequences on the domestic front and our overseas markets.
What’s the answer? – Insist that all bar codes are read and recorded so as all meat can be traced from the gate to the plate.