Taking its first step in the burgeoning animal traceability market, Orchid Biosciences announced that it will help one of Canada’s largest pork distributors genotype its sows.
For Toronto-based Maple Leaf Foods, the agreement will enable it to prove the origin of its pork to its most finicky customers, and lay the groundwork for a system that might one day help its farmers fine-tune their breeding and keep tabs on porcine diseases.
For Orchid, the deal is an entrée into the potentially larger beef traceability space: If it works in pigs — and Maple Leaf is betting CA$1.2 million that it will — then it will likely work in cows.
Orchid has been building up to this deal since last July, when CEO Paul Kelly hinted his desire to lead the company into this market. Later, in mid-January, Orchid promised to have a “suite of [beef traceability] assays” ready for sale sometime this year. At that time, this appeared to be little more than pie-in-the-sky scheming, and company officials were unable to offer something concrete. Planners were unsure what geographic markets to target first, or how Orchid would use its genotyping technology to track beef.
This Little Piggy Went to Market
Orchid’s deal with Maple Leaf Foods calls for its UK-based Cellmark unit to develop assays that analyze a panel of SNPs identified by Pyxis Genomics. Cellmark will use these SNPs to genotype certain Maple Leaf sows, and the data will be stored on a database built by IBM.
Ultimately, the goal is “to enable Canadian pork marketed anywhere in the world to be traced in a matter of hours from the store shelf back to the farm where the meat originated and even back to the maternal sow,” according to Maple Leaf.
The company decided to spend at least CA$1.2 million to begin the traceability program after customers in its primary market, Japan, began asking for it. “Japan is a very large market for Canadian pork, and for Maple Leaf in particular,” says Linda Kuhn, a spokeswoman for Maple Leaf. “And Japan has been looking for full traceability for some time.” The company hoped to begin shipping genotyped hogs to Japan during the first quarter of 2004, Kuhn says.
The program would offer Maple Leaf some extras: The genotype data might enable it to “contain disease risk” by quickly tracking down and weeding out animals with foot-and-mouth or other diseases, Kuhn says. Though pigs have no equivalent of bovine spongiform encephalopathy, the disease that is driving the beef traceability market, “foot-in-mouth disease … is a serious issue with respect [to] containment of disease,” says Kuhn.
In addition, Maple Leaf hopes that the genotype and phenotype data being stored by IBM might one day help the company breed better swine. “There are genotypes that produce the highest-quality product, the healthiest hogs, and reduced mortality,” Kuhn says.
With Orchid’s help, Maple Leaf will genotype 30,000 sows, which will produce hogs to be shipped abroad. Kuhn says while it will cost CA$40 per sow to genotype this initial population, the price will scale back as the company begins amortizing across larger producer populations. “It is an affordable cost,” she says.
Kuhn says Maple Leaf has paid for all of the R&D costs of this program, but adds that the firm is currently speaking with the Canadian government about financial assistance and incentives. David Hartshorne, commercial director of Orchid Europe, says there “has been considerable [government] interest” in applying genotyping technology to this industry, and that “this service need not necessarily be limited to the pork industry.”
As for Orchid, Hartshorne says the first year of the deal “is important … for us; we fully anticipate that ... this will grow to become a significant sector for us.”
An expanded version of this story appeared in the January 29, 2004, edition of SNPTech Pharmacogenomics Reporter.
Kirell Lakhman is editor of SNPTech Pharmacogenomics Reporter, a weekly newsletter from GenomeWeb at www. snptech.com. He can be reached at [email protected]