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Japanese consumers enjoy a level of traceability that's almost unrivaled across the world. Any piece of beef in a Japanese retail store can be traced backward through the course of its product chain all the way back to the producer, and then even beyond -- to the individual animal on the farm.
The way it works is this: You walk into any given store in Japan. You pick up a package of beef, spot the clearly-marked tracking number. You enter it into this website or its corresponding app, and the following information will auto-populate about the exact animal you're holding:
Seriously. All this information is meticulously tracked, and made available online for anyone to peruse. That's just the norm in Japan.
The conviction is simply that the shopper has every right to know about exactly where their food comes from, how it was raised, and what happened to it along its journey to the grocery store. The onus is on producers and meat processors to keep extremely detailed records of basically everything they do.
(And remember, this is nowhere near a given practice elsewhere. Cough-cough, United States of America.)
And when I say extremely detailed records... Get this: Those Japanese producers and processors are required to reconcile the animal's individual number to a log book that includes its noseprint. Yep, it's noseprint. Every bit as unique as a human thumbprint, just a little moister.
Cattle "nose print" from Japanese Wagyu Farm Log Book
Just imagine the accountability this creates! (Have I revealed my inner-nerd yet?) No point of the supply chain is opaque. At no stage can an instance of potentially dangerous or harmful-to-the-animal rule-breaking fall through the cracks.
This mechanism of transparency becomes important not only during emergencies, like E. Coli outbreaks, but also simply when a steak doesn't taste as good as it should. The customer, empowered with such information as the farm of origin for their less-than-perfect steak, knows exactly who they should settle their grievances with.
It's meat-quality monitoring, democratized.
Does this sound utopian and unfamiliar?
Yeah. For good reason.
The U.S. regulatory system is nowhere near as stringent. It's sort of the dead fish of regulatory enforcement. The USDA doesn't even require that consumers be told what country their beef comes from, let alone the farm. Don't even think about tracking it back to a specific animal -- you'd be dreaming.
The idea of imposing such a mandatory system on all U.S. producers is, in fairness, an extremely difficult question, because there are arguments that it could mean a lot of red tape and expense for producers. On the other hand, there's a growing sense that American consumers deserve to know what they're putting in their bodies -- its nutritional content, where it comes from, and the ethics and sustainability behind how it was raised.
Every time there's a meat recall, we re-realize we're at a crisis point.
I should first clarify though, and say that the USDA, which governs animal products like poultry, dairy, eggs, and red meat, doesn't actually have much power to issue a recall. When in 2013, Foster Farms chicken caused roughly 2500 people in Oregon and Washington to be sickened by salmonella, the USDA was powerless to issue a recall. There was no accountability whatsoever for the mass illness.
But the point I want to underscore is that the recall model is far from perfect. We're reminded of that fact every time a recall happens. Often what happens is that the USDA shuts down an entire slaughterhouse. Producers and processors, of course, hate when this happens -- it's terrible for business.
So why does the USDA have to shut down the whole thing? It's simple: They don't know which animal or animals had the sickness in the first place. It could have been one, or six, or 30, out of thousands. And if you can't isolate the variables that led to the issue, it's hard to do much in the way of solving it.
The problem boils down to the absence of a mandatory traceability system. And not to be a Debbie-downer, but I don't see the USDA acting on that problem anytime soon.
That reality was a big part of what urged us to start building close relationships with small farmers whose practices we've extensively vetted, and whom we deeply trust.
We make it a huge priority to fill in those knowledge gaps and share the stories of the animal, farmer, and land behind the beef. Crowd Cow is the only nationwide network of independent ranches where traceability takes the driver's seat.
When you buy from us, you'll always get the full picture.