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IBM tracks pork chops from pig to plate

Patrick Thibodeau | Dec. 20, 2011
IBM is deploying technology that allows meat suppliers to track a single pig all the way from farm animal to pork chop.

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.


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