Identification and traceability

Summary of the article          

  • A system launched in 1969 then generalized from 1978
  • A national system evolving with changing sector needs
  • Two tags and data recordings straight from birth
  • Full end-to-end traceability right up to the consumer’s table
  • Breeder organizations play a pivotal role


A system launched in 1969 then generalized from 1978

Identifying individual livestock has been a long-standing concern in France. Already back in 1969, the first ID system was launched to provide a rigorous organizational framework governing cattle breed selection programmes.

Starting out in 1978, France was a pioneer as the first country in the world to generalize individual tagging and then make the transition to full compulsory traceability on all cattle. Since then, every bull and cow in the country has its own unique ID number (issued at birth, and which stays with the animal throughout its life) and its own passport, which is a compulsory document each time the animal needs to be moved.

This national animal ID system is completed by an ID system that tracks all farms the animal is housed on and then every premises through which it passes (collection centres, markets, slaughterhouses, etc.) by recording all movements and veterinary health data for each bovine ― in the process creating what was an unprecedented individual animal health traceability system in the 1980s.

This system provided the efficient backbone to the French national herd disease prevention and epidemiological surveillance system, and was a step ahead of the subsequent OIE (World Organization for Animal Health) and WHO (World Health Organization) guidelines.

A national system evolving with changing sector needs

Since 1978, the French animal ID and traceability system has made great strides by integrating technological innovations and re-adapting to the changing needs of the cattle sector. Many features built from this long-standing experience have served to template a series of EU regulations (EC 1760/2000, EC 1825/2000) as well as various national EU member State schemes.

This exemplary system has made it possible to meet new consumer needs, by enabling food traceability (on meat, milk and processed end-products) from ’farm to fork’. The most striking illustration has to be full shelf-pack meat labelling in retail outlets, which was ushered in by France in 1996 and gained EC recognition in 1998.

As well as enabling monitoring on animal health and traceability on animal end-products, the French animal ID system is also the first link in the cattle, sheep and goat genetic information systems chain.

The 40 years of French experience in developing animal ID/traceability and information systems has helped forge the quality and reliability of French genetic selection programmes.

Two tags and data recordings straight from birth

Farmers have up to 21 days (or sale) from the calf’s birth to uniquely identify each new calf by fitting approved tags in each ear. Each tag carries the animals own unique ID number, composed of the country code ("FR" for France) and a 10-digit code number.

Double tagging the animals is simply an additional security mechanism in place so that if an animal loses one of its ear tags, it is still identified by the second one.  Any lost ear tag will need to be replaced with a new tag reprinted with the same ID number. Since 2010, breeders can opt to upgrade one of these two sight tags to an electronic ID ear tag fitted with a transponder.

The farmer has one week after ID-tagging their animal in which to provide the national computerized information database [the ’BDNI’] with the compulsory set of animal data, which they can do either via internet or by sending in a certified form: ID number, date of birth, farm herd number, the calf’s mother’s number, breed of the calf and of its mother and parent bull, and so on

Once this information has been quality-controlled and recorded in the BDNI database, the animal can be issued with its own individual passport, which is sent out to the farmer and which must stay with the animal for all its entire life up to the slaughterhouse.

In addition to this animal identification information, the passport also carries with it the animal’s veterinary health certificate (the ’ASDA’), which is issued by the veterinary authorities once the farm’s veterinary health status has been checked. Barcoding the ear tags enables quick and easy sight checks of the animal’s ID and farm herd number. The back of the passport details the animal’s certified pedigree and parentage, and the identity of its successive owners.

Full end-to-end traceability right up to the consumer’s table

From this point on, each successive owner of the animal is legally required to notify the BDNI within 7 days each time the animal is moved (move-ins, move-outs, and to slaughterhouse).

Anyone who has cattle in their possession (livestock keeper, animal market, traders, slaughterhouse, etc.) is legally required to update a registry that logs the animal’s every movement (births, move-ins, move-outs, and death). The path of every single cow is therefore tightly tracked from day 1 of its life.

At slaughter and then end-to-end through the distribution and consumer sales channel, each carcass and each cut of meat continues to stay identified, under French veterinary authority control.

This traceability system not only helps guarantee food health and safety but also provides consumers with assurances on the reliability of the compulsory labelling info given every single piece of beef on sale: its origin (country of birth, plus where farmed and where slaughtered), animal category (calf, heifer, bull, cow...) and breed type (beef breed or dairy breed).

For those distribution circuits that choose to opt in, the French traceability system can even stamp each carcass and label each piece of meat with the source animal’s identification number and ’home’ farm.

Breeder organizations play a pivotal role

Once these national animal ID/traceability systems were up and running, the Ministry for Agriculture delegated organizational and field application responsibility to breeder organizations.

Operating under Ministry authority and guidance, the breeder organizations are in charge of running these national schemes and information systems, compiling and transferring the information input that is sent on to national computerized databases (including the ’BDNI’) managed by the Ministry for Agriculture.

At national level, the Institut de l’Elevage has a permanent mission to provide technical support to the Ministry for Agriculture and to oversee all-round system engineering.

In particular, it is in charge of operational system architecture and coordinating the allied national information system, defining methods and procedures, official approval testing on the ear tags, and R&D initiatives for integrating new technologies (which in recent years has revolved around electronic identification).

At regional level, there are agencies called ’ARSOE’ [regional livestock organization support services] responsible for the development and operational deployment of software, databases, and regional-scope information systems. These computer resources collect and compile the vast majority of all animal identification-related information: zootechnical performance data, genetics data, veterinary health data, and so on. The ARSOEs also provide livestock breeders, government agencies and other livestock breeder associations with valuable, exploitable information.

At département level, there are official département livestock offices (or ’EDEs’) that manage operational deployment of the system in terms of animal and farm identification, inspections and recordings of animal identification and movement data, issuing official documents, handling incoming ear tag orders, providing technical framework for livestock keepers, and other field-level missions…

source/credit: France genetique Elevage