Maple Leaf Adds DNA Trace To Japan Pork Exports

by 5m Editor
17 March 2004, at 12:00am

US - In a bid to promote its product safety to Japanese consumers, Maple Leaf Foods Inc. will make all its pork exports to Japan DNA traceable.

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According to Maple Leaf president and CEO Michael McCain this project, will capitalize on Japan's preoccupation with food safety.

Japanese exports account for 12 to 15 percent of Maple Leaf's meat sales and Canada's largest pork and poultry processor is looking to further push its reputation in Japan as the brand leader in food safety assurance.

The pilot project is set to take off later this year where all of its exports to Japan will come from hogs whose DNA identity is stored in a computer database, allowing chops, ribs and other cuts to be traced back to their source on specific Canadian farms. This is the first commercial application of DNA traceability in food, the company claims.

In time, Maple Leaf hopes to extend genetic traceability to as many as 6.4 million hogs a year, the company's total pork production.

Ensuring safety and deeper knowledge of supply is now imperative for food producers shaken by mad-cow disease, foot-and-mouth disease and recently avian flu, as well as by heightened consumer sensitivity to nutrition and quality.

Toronto-based Maple Leaf, one of Canada's largest food exporters, decided several years ago to build a brand strategy around "prevention, preparedness and proof."

"The ability to trace the origin of the meat is one element of preparedness," Mr. McCain says. "If there is a breach [in the food chain], you have the ability to go right back to the farm of origin and deal with the issue in real time."

For a company best known for slaughtering and slicing, Maple Leaf has become something of a science experimenter. It teamed up with Pyxis Genomics Inc. of Chicago to develop DNA "panels"—information-packed genetic markers — that could be used to trace finished pork products back to the maternal sow and her litters.

The process involves obtaining a blood sample from the sow, which is DNA-typed, with the information, including specific farm location, entered in a database developed by IBM Canada Ltd.

But DNA tracing is one slice of a global effort to track food through stages of production — for safety, genetic improvement and animal health research. It is particularly important in meat processing, Mr. McCain says, because it is such a highly mobile food category.

Other meat companies are working on DNA tracing, as well as on mechanical processes, including bar codes and radio frequency tags, which allow livestock to be tracked through the system.

Mr. McCain said Maple Leaf looked at physical systems but concluded that they were too costly and error-prone. These systems break down when it comes to following individual cuts through distribution networks. But DNA tracing is accurate in charting meat from the dinner plate back to the farm, he says.

Developing the DNA panel, in a joint venture with Pyxis, cost Maple Leaf about $1-million. Maple Leaf's continuing expenses of gene typing are estimated at 80 cents a market hog, and those costs are declining.

Mr. McCain figures 80 cents is reasonable on a hog valued at $150. On Maple Leaf's total annual intake of 6.4 million hogs, the outlay would be about $5-million a year, which would be passed on to consumers.

"DNA is not rocket science," he says, but what can be rocket science, he adds, is the challenge of implementing it throughout an entire supply chain.

Maple Leaf hopes to license the technology to the pork industry, and possibly for beef and poultry. Other industry tracking efforts are under way, as well. For example, the Canadian Pork Council is working on a national geo-referencing system aimed at recording where all the pigs are in Canada.

High River, Alta., hog producer Dennis McKerracher, a vice-president of Alberta Pork, says the Maple Leaf initiative is a "big plus" for the company's internal supply chain, but will have to be teamed with broader national and industry initiatives. Also, he says he is concerned that Canada has not done a good job of mitigating the risk from foreign animal disease.

Source: eFeedLink - 17th March 2004

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