Updated: Apr 4, 2020
Exposing the Mystery of Where Our Meat Comes from and Exploring if Blockchain Technology Can Bring Change
The meat industry is overwhelming and mysterious. It impacts so many aspects of our lives – from the environment to personal health – and is among the most controversial issues of our time. Yet many of us fail to ask ourselves the most basic questions:
How did this piece of meat end up on our plate?
Where did it come from?
Who were the actors involved?
What were the facilities it passed through?
All of these unknowns lead to the question: How can companies bring transparency to this process and where does industry stand with technology adoption that will bring visibility to supply chains.
In this piece I intend to explore these questions, focusing on the beef supply chain, and will address the chicken, pork and seafood journey in the future.
Beef Supply Chain
These are the basic steps of the beef supply chain from birth to your dinner plate:
Cow-Calf Operation: Cows are raised with their mothers until they are 4-7 months old.
Backgrounder Operations: Weaned calves are then sold at auctions to backgrounders who transition them to either grain or grass. Though the healthier option, only 3% of calves are fed grass as it takes 2-3x longer to fatten up the calf. During this stage is when calves are most vulnerable to disease and are often fed numerous hormones and antibiotics.
Feedlots: The 97% of cows that are not finished on grass, the term used to describe the process of fattening them up before slaughter, are finished on feedlots where they eat grain (corn or corn byproducts) until they are about 2 years old. Feedlots are massive operations. Although only 5% have a capacity of over 100 cattle, those feedlots produce between 80% and 90% of all grain-finished cattle.
Processing: Once finished, cattle are then transported to a processing plant for slaughter. Their meat is cut and packaged to be sent to retail outlets. This phase of the supply chain is highly concentrated – four giant meatpackers control more than 80% of the cattle slaughtered to produce beef in the United States. They are Tysons, Cargill, National Beef and JBS, which collectively control the beef market to the point that some farmers believe the companies’ can unfairly influences livestock prices.
Supermarkets and Retailers: This is the step we are all familiar with when we buy the product from a store or restaurant. Consumers have some choice when it comes to grass-fed or not, organic or not or choosing to purchase at retailers that divulge nothing about the origin of your food.
This complex process brings up multiple issues. For example, how to trace the supply chain during an outbreak of a food borne illness or cattle disease. During the romaine lettuce E-coli outbreak earlier this year, retailers found it took about a month to track lettuce back to its source, which could have saved lives if identified sooner.
Beef Imports and Exports
According to Beef Magazine, “the U.S. is the largest producer, the largest consumer, the third-largest exporter and the largest importer of beef in the world.”
Based on these statistics, one might wonder why the U.S. would need to import meat if it has excess to export. The reason is that the meat that is imported to the U.S. is called “lean” and is used to mix with trim (the scraps that could not be sold on their own) to make ground beef. The reason we need to import this meat is that U.S. cows are fatty and ground beef has to be mixed with lean beef trimmings – imported from Canada, Mexico, Australia, New Zealand, and Central and South American countries – in order to be sold.
As for exports, there are some parts of the animals and cuts of meat in high demand in other countries that are not consumed in the U.S. For example, Peru imports beef heart where it is a delicacy and the same for Japan with beef tongue. 
This issue has become contentious since the Country of Origin Labeling law known as COOL was repealed in 2013. That
meant that meat could be labeled as a product of the USA when it’s not. The catch is that if meat comes from another country and is processed in the U.S. under USDA supervision, it can still be labeled as Made in the USA. As consumers, we cannot make educated decisions about our food choices due to the lack of transparency in the meat industry.
Where Does This Leave Us?
The disconnected nature of the beef supply chain along with the inability to identify country of origin leaves the meat we buy from the grocery store one big mystery. Aside from the fear of E-coli, which causes an estimated 265,000 illnesses per year and 31 deaths, consumers have little insight into what hormones and chemicals got into the food we eat. Ironically, the U.S. has much less regulation than other countries when it comes to the hormones in our beef, so consuming meat from abroad may, in fact, be safer.
In order to work toward full transparency in both the origin of beef and what goes into the raising and processing of animals, there needs to be the adoption of technology. At the moment, distributed ledger technology, or blockchain, is seen as a promising option to bring visibility to supply chains. This technology could allow both consumers and retailers to access information about a cut of meat’s origin as well as details of vaccinations and any antibiotics or growth hormones the animal had been given. Blockchain could also provide information about the animal’s feed, the location of the farm and details on when it was slaughtered and processed.
The three largest initiatives working to bring visibility to the beef supply chain are outlined below:
BeefChain: Primarily based in Wisconsin, Beefchain is using sensor technology that will help provide customers confidence in the meat they consume and allow ranchers to receive premium prices. Beefchain uses radio frequency identification technology (RFID) and other Internet of Things (IoT) devices to upload unique cow/calf information to the blockchain.
Tyson Fresh Meats: Tysons has partnered with IdentiGen, the leading provider of DNA identification solutions, to adopt its DNA TraceBack system to trace the cattle raised for its Open Prairie Natural Angus Beef. Samples of DNA from cattle entering the Open Prairie program will be used to trace the origin of cuts of beef as they move through the supply chain. The system will provide greater assurances for customers that the products they purchase from Tyson Foods are ethically sourced. As of now the origin information will not be on the packaging and a sample must be sent. It takes two days to trace the meat back through the Tyson record-keeping system to the ranch where the animal was born.
IBM Foodtrust: Though not specifically focused on beef, IBM’s Foodtrust is worth mentioning as it has gained the most momentum from key players across the food supply chain. The platform is meant to improve the food industry’s data-sharing continuum by involving every participant from the growing, harvesting, processing, packaging, transporting, holding and selling of a food product using blockchain technology. The wealth of information helps minimize safety issues, such as contamination and the spread of food-borne illness, and mitigates waste. Using blockchain also speeds up the identification process, and according to representatives from IBM, clients can now trace products from the store back to the farm in 2.2 seconds. 
While the transparency movement is growing, retailers are feeling pressure from consumers to provide more information on the origins of their food. It should be clear by now that this is no easy task. Due to the complex, disconnected nature of all supply chains, it is challenging to bring information together and it’s a small miracle fresh food ends up on our plates every day. The promise of blockchain is to get information in a central location that cannot be tampered with, so that each step along the supply chain is connected to the next. As described best by Kip DeCastro, a senior technologist at BeefChain, “Using a blockchain, you don’t have to trust that the data and information that I’m recording is accurate,” says DeCastro. “It’s like we’re at a football game, and everyone’s watching the scoreboard.”