Original article (in Spanish) written by Ana Bugueiro for the Digitanimal blog
Part 1: Food Chain and Digital Traceability
Digitanimal, with its interest in offering new solutions to livestock farms, has developed a new electronic label. The label uses a QR code to provide more information, in a more reliable way, about the meat production of various livestock farms.
Traceability in the food chain is what allows us to follow the evolution process of a product in each of its production stages. In the case of the meat production chain, we follow the evolution from the farm through the life of the animal, to the slaughterhouse, to the cutting room, to the packaging, and to subsequent distribution. To do this, the animal is identified from birth and is recorded in the farm book. All identified animals in a livestock farm undergo annual health checks for the detection of notifiable diseases such as tuberculosis. These records also check animal welfare, farm conditions, management, and the farm book to ensure that no animal is left unidentified. Apart from this compulsory control, beef cattle farms also follow many other veterinary controls to keep production as efficient and sustainable as possible, as well as to ensure the good health and welfare of their animals.
The traceability chain also follows the movements of the animals. The farmer has to report sales and purchases as well as withdrawals and discards on the farm. All causes of cancellation are covered and must be duly notified and justified. The monitoring of the animals is carried out by the animal transport controls, which must comply with specific timetables in order not to harm their welfare.
The slaughterhouse is the other part of the food chain that is closely monitored. The animals are slaughtered in the most ethical way and without causing suffering. In this process, stunning is compulsory except for certain religious rites where, depending on the country, it may or may not be compulsory. All traceability processes in the slaughterhouse and subsequent cutting room, as well as their distribution, follow a process known as HACCP (Hazard Analysis Critical Control Points). This process allows for the determination of all potential risks, such as biological, physical, or chemical risks that can affect any food product. Thanks to this analysis, risks can be prevented. For example, microbiological samples of surfaces and foodstuffs can be taken before they are distributed for analysis.
From this point on, all pieces of meat are traced back to the label that you can buy in the shop, which informs consumers about the whole process. Should a problem be detected, it can be traced back to determine the source, hence highlighting the importance of traceability. Europe has the most comprehensive traceability system in the world, a system that continues to evolve.
Nowadays, and given the evolution of technology, the European Union (EU) has wanted to expand research in this field. This type of initiative has given companies like Digitanimal the opportunity to develop products in this field. Digitanimal develops devices that help farmers with the management of their animals. These devices are powered by Internet of Things (IoT) technology which can also be applied to provide data for traceability. For example, GPS collars were developed to assist the farmer in locating livestock in extensive farming. Until now, they have been used with this function, allowing farmers to pinpoint the real location of their cattle. This information is automatically generated and stored on servers, without sharing personal information. If the farmer wants to, additional information can be offered on the label, for instance: “Free-ranging animals in fields X location”. Until now, it was not possible to verify if this information was correct, but by locating the cattle it can be. Moreover, apart from facilitating traceability processes, many studies show that this type of information is of great interest to the consumer and could generate more sales.
Not only that, technology has evolved so that all the information generated on a server is verifiable. This is what is known as Blockchain. A few years ago, this was still an unfamiliar concept. Today, it is said to be the data revolution, used for many industries, including the food chain. But what is Blockchain? It collects transaction data like a ledger. It allows us to determine which transactions occur and when they occur, and it verifies if the information is correct. This is because it is a decentralized network, using peer-to-peer consensus to validate transactions. Blockchain data is stored in blocks that are “sealed” with a timestamp. Immutable in the future, with no possibility of being manipulated later.
With this system, non-manipulable, reliable, and traceable data can be obtained. It is like adding another additional traceability chain but this time to the data, as if each piece of data shared is certified by someone belonging to that Blockchain, obtaining data verified by the system itself. This provides additional certification in any traceability and certification process, something the food chain is working on very closely. To this end, Digitanimal, in collaboration with the FIWARE Foundation, IDELE, and Natrus, has developed a Blockchain system in which data on the growth stage of the animal on the farm is introduced. This information can be made visible and for this, a QR code that can easily be added to the labeling of the products was developed.
Part 2: Testing Digital Labels
The first consumer experience with the QR code was tested during the Datagri 2021 Forum, a food chain technology fair. During the conference, attendees were able to participate in a real-life test of how to visualize the QR code on hamburgers. The volunteers received a pack of burgers at home with a sticker with the QR code through which they could find out more information about the product. Of all the attendees, 64 were encouraged to participate and after verifying the information on the sticker, they filled in an individual survey. The survey was online and personal, in which respondents answered general questions about the display of the label and the information provided. All respondents were asked about their line of work. This information is important to be able to analyze the answers according to their knowledge of the food chain. Respondents included a wide range of occupations:
- Public administration: 4:61
- Technology companies: 4:61
- Agri-food industry: 10:61
- Press: 4:61
- Universities or research centers: 10:61
- Agriculture or livestock: 6:61
- Other, unspecified: 23:61
The questions were divided into general information, livestock information, and cutting room information as follows.
All respondents (100%) were able to open the QR code correctly of which one respondent (1.5%) did not find the information useful. Only 1 (1.5%) respondent did not find it useful to know where the animal came from.
Twelve respondents did not understand the animal information. In this case, information about where the animal grew up was displaced. Heat maps, information about what the animal ate while growing up, as well as where the farm was located was also shared. Many of the attendees were already familiar with the Blockchain concept, with only 5 participants admitting to needing more information. One of the most common comments was that 10 of the respondents did not quite understand what the seals referred to.
All respondents understood the animal information but only 54 (88%) participants understood the heat map information. A heat map is a graphical representation of location measurements in color ranges from coldest to warmest where there are more animals. An improvement that can be made is to represent it in another type of graph or to explain the movement of the animals.
In general, all respondents understood the information. Only two respondents could not see the information correctly but admitted to having problems with opening the page due to problems with their mobile phone browser.
Market and Willingness to Pay:
Of all the responses obtained, only 5 respondents (8%) did not express an interest in paying for more information from the farmer and only 3 respondents (5%) would not pay more for products that certify animal welfare. On the other hand, half of the respondents stated they would be interested in knowing more about the farmer, and admitted that they would even like to meet the farmer in person. Almost all respondents (96%) believe that traceability will be standardized in the future and that it will make it possible to trace the origin of all products. Surprisingly, 83% prefer to get this information from sensors rather than manual data. This answer possibly explains why 98% of the respondents consider that the digitization of the chain is close and that digital traceability will be acquired soon.
In conclusion, all respondents found the information useful. It is true that the number of respondents does not allow for conclusive results on the consumer experience of QR codes on meat labeling, but it is a good start to encourage further studies on a market analysis of this technology. In general, it can be said that the respondents were very interested in the product and the responses to applying this type of technology have been very positive. COVID-19 may have advanced the process of digitalization planned for this era. However, it is also very possible that the food chain will advance faster than expected and that technology such as that manufactured by Digitanimal will become essential in the coming few years.
Revisit the conference via this link.