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MSU researchers testing beef tracking from pasture to plate

Beef from the cattle on this 350 acre farm on MSU's campus will be served in the cafeterias at MSU in the fall.
Photo by Emily Fox
Beef from the cattle on this 350 acre farm on MSU's campus will be served in the cafeterias at MSU in the fall.

Local food is the hottest thing on menus this year. That’s according to a survey by the National Restaurant Association. Michigan State University researchers are trying to give consumers more information about locally grown food.

Some say local is the new green. Here's how two characters in the show Portandia portray the local food movement in America:

Waitress: “My name is Dana, I’ll be taking care of you today if you have any questions about the menu, please let me know.” Woman: “I guess I do have a question about the chicken. If you could just tell us a little more about it.” Waitress: “Uh, the chicken is a heritage breed, woodland raised chicken that’s been fed a diet of sheep’s milk, soy and hazelnuts. . .” Man: “This is local?” Waitress: “Yes. Absolutely.” Man: “I’m going to ask you one more time. And it’s local?” Waitress: “It is.” Woman: “Is that USDA organic, Oregon organic or Portland organic?” Waitress: “It’s just all across the board. Organic.”

FOX: Okay, so not every restaurant is like the one featured in this sitcom. But researchers at Michigan State University say people do want more information about their food. They're starting a pilot program to do just that with local beef.

I went on tractor tour of MSU’s 350 acre cattle farm on campus. This is where MSU students and researchers are raising cattle that will be packaged and processed in Michigan and fed to students in campus cafeterias in the fall.

There will be kiosks in the cafeterias and bar codes on table tents that students can scan with their smart phones. That will take them to a website that comes up with all kinds of information about the beef including where the cow was raised and what its diet was. The bigger idea is to eventually have these barcodes on packaged meat in grocery stores so consumers can learn about the beef before they buy it.

Dan Buskirt is a professor in Animal Sciences at MSU. He’s leading this project to track beef from farm to fork.

“All the technology is currently there to be able to do this. We just have to put it together and put it in people’s hands so that they can start using it.”

Buskirt says it makes sense to start this tracking program in Michigan. In 2007, the Michigan Department of Agriculture mandated that all cows have tracking tags. That’s so if there is a disease outbreak, a cow can be traced back to the farm where the outbreak began. Because of this, all cows in Michigan have what is called radio frequency identification. It’s a microchip inserted into the cow’s ear that has a number attached to it so the cow can be tracked. Buskirt says they will be utilizing that existing system in their pilot program.

This year, the program will provide 4,000 pounds of local beef to MSU cafeterias. Buskirk expects the program to expand over the years and branch out to local retailers.

-Emily Fox for The Environment Report