IBM tracks pork chops from pig to plate

Technology viewed as helpful in limiting or preventing disease outbreaks in animals

IBM is deploying technology that allows meat suppliers to track a single pig all the way from farm animal to pork chop.

If you are a vegetarian or a fan of Miss Piggy, you may want to stop reading here. But, otherwise, what IBM is working on in China may limit or prevent disease outbreaks in animals.

IBM is taking supply chain technology that it first used in the pharmaceutical industry to track pills from the manufacturer to retail stores and is applying it to the pork industry.

Pigs are identified with a barcoded ear tag. The tag is used to track the various pig parts as they pass through the slaughterhouse, processing plant, distribution center and finally to the clear plastic-wrapped package in a grocer's case.

If a consumer buys three pork chops in a package, "you know that these three pieces of pork chop came from pig number 123," said Paul Chang, who leads global strategy for emerging technologies at IBM.

The identification coding isn't on the meat, but on the bins used in the processing plant and then on the store's packaging.

For sausages, the system performs the aggregation that identifies the pigs that were part of the lot number used to make the sausage.

China's interest in the tracking technology stems from an outbreak in 2006-07 of blue-ear pig disease, an infectious reproductive and respiratory illness.

The swine disease led to a pork shortage and sent prices soaring as the government worked to control the outbreak. In the U.S. and globally, there was worry that the disease could spread.

IBM has built algorithms that can analyze the data and assess risk levels to try to quickly identify problems. It could categorize some shipments, for instance, from some suppliers as high risk and then target inspection and testing resources to potential problem areas, "and hopefully prevent an outbreak," Chang said.

Tracking system sensors also record the temperature and humidity of the pork at each step of the way -- anything that can affect the quality of the product.

The system being installed in China does not monitor the pig's health, such as the animal's temperature, weight and feeding habits. But Chang said the platform, which sits in a cloud as a hosted system, can do these health-monitoring measures and said there are companies interested in having them.

If you are monitoring an animal's eating habits and weight, you "can get some sense of whether the animal is healthy or not," Chang said. The technology will also identify the animal's physical location, and other animals it has come in contact with, he said.

"Ultimately the holy grail of this exercise is if you can prevent an outbreak from happening," Chang said.

IBM is running the tracking system in Shangdong Province on a limited scale in six slaughterhouses and more than 100 retail stores, but says it will running on a larger scale by 2013.

Chang said the company has a similar tracking project with a large U.S. retailer that is focused on produce, but IBM can't disclose the customer's name. IBM is deploying similar systems in Vietnam, Thailand, Norway and elsewhere.

Steven McOrist, a veterinary expert on pigs at the University of Nottingham in the U.K., said the technology of placing small barcode-type tags onto pigs for monitoring their body temperature with remote sensors has been around for a few years. It also has been adopted in a few situations globally, particularly if the pigs are more valuable, such as stud males or imported females.

"One would honestly have to say that the general uptake of this technology has been pretty low for pig farming," McOrist said, in part because of the difficulty in trying to keep track of the tags on the pigs, which will eat the tags and scratch them off.

Chang believes IBM has addressed the problem of keeping the tags on the pigs.

McOrist said the experience with these types of tags on pigs is that they probably assist in monitoring the early stages of a disease outbreak, such as blue-ear disease. "Other technologies, like blood tests, are still needed to clarify the actual pig problem and what the best solution is, in any given situation," he added.

The virus that causes blue-ear disease, which is known in the Western world as porcine reproductive and respiratory syndrome virus (PRRSV) does not infect humans, said Federico Zuckermann, a professor of immunology at the University of Illinois College of Veterinary Medicine.

Zuckermann said the technology IBM is deploying sounds interesting and ambitious if i it makes it possible to track pigs in their environment.

"The tracking system would be a great tool, but they would need to have veterinarians to analyze the information and make sense of it in order to have a chance to help control this disease," Zuckermann said.

Patrick Thibodeau covers SaaS and enterprise applications, outsourcing, government IT policies, data centers and IT workforce issues for Computerworld. Follow Patrick on Twitter at @DCgov or subscribe to Patrick's RSS feed . His e-mail address is pthibodeau@computerworld.com.

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