RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
This is MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne. When you buy a cut of beef, you could, in theory, find out that animal's history. The technology for this does exist in Michigan, where the state requires all cattle to carry electronic ear tags. It's the only state that requires those tags. Many farmers fought that requirement, but others are thinking maybe they can use it to promote their products to consumers. NPR's Dan Charles reports.
DAN CHARLES, BYLINE: Michigan's cattle-tracking system was forced on farmers because of a crisis. Fifteen years ago, cattle in the part of the state started catching tuberculosis from wild deer. Whenever a steer was discovered with the disease, health officials swooped in to find out what other farms the animal had passed through, what other cattle it had met along the way, because those animals might also be carrying the disease. It was a mad scramble through farmers' records. Steve Halstead, Michigan's state veterinarian, says those papers sometimes were a mess.
STEVE HALSTED: Farmers are busy. They move animals every day. They know what they're doing, but they don't always write it down.
CHARLES: The confusion cost Michigan's farmers real money. Until they could prove that their cattle hadn't been exposed to TB, they were banned from out-of-state markets. So, three years ago, the state of Michigan ordered cattle farmers to put special electronic tags on their animals.
Today, whenever a steer or cow leaves a farm in Michigan or goes to a slaughterhouse, it passes by a tag reader, and its ID number goes to a central computer that keeps track of every animal's location. So if it ever shows up sick...
HALSTED: We can track that animal all the way back, well, through every herd it's been in, through any sale yard it's been through, and back to the farm of origin.
CHARLES: Michigan adopted this system, despite some opposition from farmers. Around the same time, the U.S. Department of Agriculture proposed a national system just like this. The USDA said it would help control not just TB, but also scarier diseases, like foot and mouth or mad cow disease. But ranchers like Debbie Davis in south-central Texas fought it off. They called it expensive, unnecessary.
DEBBIE DAVIS: We felt like it was an invasion of privacy. It was a way for the government to monitor the number of animals we own, watch our business practices, monitor our movements. And being independent Texans, we weren't interested in that.
CHARLES: The USDA dropped the requirement for electronic ID tags nationwide. Now, though, some farmers are thinking those ID tags might have a good side. Maybe an animal that's been tracked its whole life will be worth more when it's sold.
DANIEL BUSKIRK: There's a large number of people that would like to know where their food comes from, just understand that better.
CHARLES: Daniel Buskirk is an expert on the beef industry at Michigan State University. He's using the university's own herd of cattle to experiment with ways to track those animals and then make information about them available to shoppers in the store.
BUSKIRK: This is one way that we can hopefully kind of connect the story of how this food is being produced with the consumers that are consuming it.
CHARLES: Last year, when 72 of the university's steers went to the slaughterhouse, Buskirk set up a system that transferred the identity of each animal from its electronic ID tag to a new set of new tags: little square barcodes. Those barcodes were pinned to the carcass. And as butchers went to work on it, cutting it into smaller pieces, they used a little hand-held device to scan that first bar code and print new ones for each new cut of meat.
In this case, the meat just went to the university's food service, not a grocery store. Graduate student Tristan Foster shows how the system works.
TRISTAN FOSTER: This is the final label that we had actually put on the boxes of beef.
CHARLES: So this is what goes on, like, two pounds of chuck, or something?
FOSTER: Sure. Yup, exactly.
BUSKIRK: So then if you have a smartphone, I can scan that two-dimensional bar code and it will give information about the origin of that beef.
CHARLES: Oh, wow. We even got a picture.
BUSKIRK: We even have an aerial picture of the farm.
CHARLES: But it could be almost anything.
BUSKIRK: What goes on at the farm, how the animals might be cared for, how they might be fed.
CHARLES: It depends on what consumers actually want to know about the meat they buy, and what the meat producers are willing to reveal. Dan Charles, NPR News.
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