Ontario farmer uses barcodes to raise the bar on beef

By Jeanine Moyer

(Simcoe and Stoney Creek) – Ontario beef farmer Cory Van Groningen knows what’s important to his customers – quality

Cory Van Groningen

Cory Van Groningen

and trust. And he’s found a way to increase meat tenderness while tracing every single cut of beef from the farm, directly into the hands of his customer. All this is achieved by using barcodes and innovative tracking systems that begin at the animal’s birth, and follow right through to placing prime beef cuts in the grocery store cooler.

As co-owner of the family business, VG Meats, Van Groningen is responsible for keeping the supply chain short by raising cattle for their own processing plant and retail stores. He and his wife Heidi run a 400 cross-bred cow herd, producing beef for VG Meats and other retailers. Raising cattle directly for their own market means Van Groningen has complete control over the product through every stage, beginning at birth, to ensure health, quality and traceability.

Keeping with a 40-year family tradition of processing and retailing meat, Van Groningen also works alongside his parents and three brothers, managing and operating a processing plant and two retail locations. Selling directly to customers through two retail locations in Simcoe and Stoney Creek, ON, means Van Groningen and his family can talk directly to their customers, determining exactly what they want and what’s important to them.

“We’ve learned customers want to trust the people packaging their meat,” says Van Groningen. “They often ask questions as a way to learn more about products and test a retailer’s competency. Traceability is a way to earn their trust and help them verify they’ve made the right choice in choosing our meat products.”

As a farmer, food processor and retailer, Van Groningen knows consumer trust means the family business needs to be accountable for the products they sell. And that means product traceability right from the farm to the customer’s plate.

Farm to plate

VG Meats has teamed up with BIO, an Ontario producer cooperative specializing in animal identification technology, to pilot a new traceability system for processors and retailers. bioLinks is an internet-based inventory management, pricing, sales tracking and traceability system designed for small to medium food processors. Using a simple barcoding system developed for an iPhone or iPod, bioLinks can identify and track every cut of meat from an individual carcass.

When teamed up with an on-farm management system, bioTrack, the barcoded product can even go farther, tracing a cut of meat back to the farm the animal was raised, even listing animal genetics, health records and tag numbers.

Since 2001, all beef animals born and raised in Canada are already required to wear a radio frequency identification (RFID) tag. Each animal is issued a unique identification number from a national data base that follows the animal throughout its lifetime. Specific information like birth dates, health records and farm address where the animal was raised can also be linked to the RFID tag. The RFID tag system is the starting point for both the bioTrack and bioLinks systems to trace animals, carcasses and beef cuts through every step of the supply chain.

“This is industry-changing technology,” says Van Groningen who has implemented both systems on his farm and in the family’s processing and retail locations, creating a full-circle product tracking system that’s sure to resonate with his customers.

Building credibility with customers

Combining the tracking systems with Van Groningen’s customer insights, VG meats is taking traceability one step further – straight into the customer’s hands. bioLinks also has an online tracking component using QR (quick response) codes,and starting this spring, every Longos store in Ontario will offer coded beef products from VG Meats.

Using the QR codes, customers can immediately see where the animal was raised, what rations it was fed and birth and harvesting dates. Customers will also find recipes and cooking tips for the specific cut of meat and can rate or comment on the product.

“I don’t know of anyone else in North America doing this in the meat industry,” says Van Groningen. “Barcoding our beef cuts offers immediate product verification for consumers and bankable trust for us.”

The new bioLinks system is positioning VG Meats as innovative leaders in the market, but they won’t be stopping there. Van Groningen and his family are constantly looking for ways to improve their meat quality and are using the data from both systems to concentrate on improving meat tenderness.

Ontario beef farmers know consumers want a better understanding of where and how their meat is raised. Encouraged by the interest and questions their customers, Van Groningen and his family have found a way to deliver the same great products their customers love, with the added assurance of traceability. “We expect traceability will play a larger role in consumer buying decisions,” predicts Van Groningen.

“That’s why we are turning to innovative technology like these traceability systems to gain consumer trust.” After all, according to Van Groningen, in his business, traceability means trust. “And nothing is more important than the trust of our customers.”

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