IBM tracks pork chops from pig to plate

Meat suppliers can track a single pig all the way from live animal to pork chop, thanks to new technology from IBM that may limit or prevent disease outbreaks.

Pigs are identified with a barcoded ear tag. That tag helps track various pig parts as they pass through the slaughterhouse and on to the processing plant, the distribution center and finally the package in a grocer's case.

Some trial systems are being installed in slaughterhouses and retail stores in the Chinese province of Shandong. China's interest stems from an outbreak of blue-ear pig disease from 2006 to 2007. The illness doesn't affect humans, but at the time, it led to a pork shortage and sent prices soaring. There was worry that the disease could spread to other pigs around the globe.

IBM's algorithms analyze data and assess risk levels to try to quickly identify problems. For instance, the systems could categorize some shipments from certain suppliers as high risk and then target inspection and testing resources to potential problem areas.

Steven McOrist, a veterinary expert on pigs at the University of Nottingham in England, said that tags on pigs could help monitor the early stages of disease but that other diagnostic tools including blood tests "are still needed" to clarify the actual problem and help determine the best solution.

"Ultimately, the holy grail of this exercise is if you can prevent an outbreak from happening," said Paul Chang, who leads global strategy for emerging technologies at IBM.