THE invitation to visit Malta and develop an understanding of its traceability database and application came just before the breaking news about horsemeat in beef products in the UK.
When Malta joined the EU, a comprehensive traceability system commenced with the guidance of PAN Livestock Services Ltd, based at Reading University. The chief veterinary officer of Malta, Dr Anthony Gruppetta, offered full access to the staff and facilities.
It is clear that there is considerable pride in the operation of the National Livestock Database that complies with all EU legislation on animal traceability, food safety, animal health, animal welfare and environmental restrictions on animal populations.
The database is also used for the management of EU support schemes for livestock production and for the records of all imported animal products and inspections of consignments from third countries at the border inspection post. If safeguard measures need to be invoked to protect Maltese agriculture, then the system is up and running.
When you take a dog for a walk in Malta you may be approached by a warden with a hand-held scanner linked to a database. If the dog has not been microchipped then a 30-day time limit is issued to take the dog to the vet. When the vet inserts a chip the dog owner is charged €10 if the dog is neutered and €20 if entire. The vet then completes an information form and emails it as an attachment to the Government Veterinary Services where it is automatically updated onto the database.
Every dog on Malta and Gozo is recorded and has a passport. The database also identifies payments to the veterinary practice. For inserting a chip into an entire dog the practice pays the state €5, but for a neutered dog the state pays €5 to the vet. Glancing at a few of the records indicates that some practices will be receiving cheques for several thousand euros.
Horsemeat is served on Malta and costs more than beef. Equines are implanted behind the ear and issued with a passport. The medicine records and identification are strictly applied and determine whether the meat goes for human consumption or incineration.
We learned that carcase burial for livestock is not permitted, a practical consideration due to the terrain. Onfarm slaughter, for personal consumption, is also withdrawn which challenges some traditional activities by the farming fraternity.
It was explained that honey fraud is being addressed by introducing hive traceability. In the spring, Malta has a burst of flowers before the very hot summer. Maltese honey is highly valued but copycat labelling of glucose syrup undermines the market. This approach follows a theme that the traceability database is for the benefit of the Maltese and not some administrative hurdle to be avoided.
The database is continually being added to, including imports, slaughter, deaths and exports. Each section has particular requirements and individual staff members have access to their area of responsibility.
Access to the whole database is restricted so that errors and omissions are limited. Changes that are made are logged and so every entry record shows the date, time and person responsible. Speaking to Andrew James of PAN, who has designed the system and supports the Maltese Veterinary Services, he makes the point that developing a traceability database is not simply about computer programming, it is more about having an understanding of the breadth and complexity of the tasks.
As use builds, additional features are added carefully. One particular aspect to be avoided is a single entry being interpreted by the system as multiple entries. Checks and safeguards are in place and it is a full understanding of the aims and accuracy that gives the Maltese managers confidence in applying the various health initiatives.
Farm livestock have electronic identification ear tags. Loss of ear tags has important consequences throughout the life of an animal, with routine testing and inspections. When charging for replacement tags was introduced, the volume of losses fell significantly.
We visited a milking sheep unit and a dairy farm with beef. Management of livestock is specifically adapted to the local climate and land use. The animals are housed the year round. The land is in terraces with low walls to retain the earth during heavy rain.
A form of wheat is grown, left to dry, harvested and baled. This forms the basic local feedstuff with concentrates, maize and hay included in the production ration. Maltese farmers converse in their own language with translation by the veterinary services’ managers during the farm visits. There is a good relationship between the managers and the farmers and there is a tradition on the islands of hard work.
We were shown the Allan Scythe that is used to cut the wheat on one farm. With no large fields the farmer walks behind the scythe to harvest over a hundred acres.
Minimal use of data on farm
At present there is minimal use of the data held to help on-farm management but this is a major next step. The milking sheep unit has a modern processing facility and a small “cheeselet”, rather like junket, is manufactured and sold directly to outlets. There is a fresh version that we sampled with coffee and a dried product combined with black pepper that accompanies biscuits and red wine.
In the past decade the quality of Maltese wine has developed to a high standard. The dairy herd utilises a computer combined with a modern 18- parlour milking unit for about 120 cows. The farmers are benefiting from EU membership.
Underpinning the initiative is the tried and tested InterTrace database. NMR (National Milk Records) also uses InterTrace in the UK and James Hanks of PAN points out that the database hosts over 10 million cow records and rising. Size and capacity is not a limiting consideration. Cattle practices in the UK will be familiar with InterHerd+ as a management aid for disease recording and analysis. Traceability systems, based on InterTrace, are supported in other countries accommodating their own particular aims and ambitions.
One such project is operating in Wales to investigate the use and benefits of EID (electronic identification) tags for sheep flocks utilising InterTrace and NMR to operate the TAG database (Technology Agriculture & Greater Efficiencies).
Eighty sheep farmers have been recruited to test and operate different equipment and to provide “honest” feedback.
The Welsh Assembly is looking to understand the benefits to the government and the benefits to farmers of the application of EID.
Huw Davies from Carmarthenshire visited the Maltese operation in order to understand more fully the wider applications arising from electronic identification. Huw shared his experiences with the managers and the farmers and he showed photos of his flock and family to the people we met. His enthusiasm for the benefits of EID and associated technologies was evident to all.
The TAG project is ongoing and initial reports are available at www.menterabusnes.com/en/tag. Each of the farms has traceability but there are three different uses of equipment from full IT-enabled with ear tag reader/ruggedised computer and wi-fi data transfer, to a partial system with data transfer by NMR staff and a manual recording system with no hightech equipment.
The whole of the food chain is participating and there are lessons learned by processors and retailers as well as by the farmers. Some 40,000 ewes are monitored on 80 farms. One of the clear benefits has been the ability to use the recorded data for flock management.
Individual farmers are transferring data into a web-based management program and there is in depth discussion about the application of the data. Use of the new technology will take time to become widely incorporated and assist day-to-day flock management throughout Wales but the initial feedback is very positive.
Further details about the use and application of InterTrace are available at www.panlivestock.com.