Taking its first step in the burgeoning animal traceability market, Orchid Biosciences this week said 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 entree into the potentially larger beef traceability space: If it works in pigs — and Maple Leaf is betting CA$1.2 million ($919,000) 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. Then, three weeks ago, 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 [see 1/8/2004 SNPtech Pharmacogenomics Reporter]. Planners were unsure what geographic markets to target first, or how Orchid would use its genotyping technology to track beef.
“We are currently … working on a number of projects to develop traceability assays in the agricultural sector using SNP markers,” David Hartshorne, commercial director of Orchid Europe, teased earlier this month. “At the moment, we don’t have any dates for the commercial release of those markers; those are still under development.”
What a difference a few weeks makes.
This Little Piggy Went to Market
The deal with Maple Leaf Foods that Orchid announced this week calls for the company’s UK-based Cellmark unit to develop assays to 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 ($919,000) 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,” Linda Kuhn, a spokeswoman for Maple Leaf, said this week. “And Japan has been looking for full traceability for some time.
“This is probably the key driver in getting out of the gate first on DNA traceability,” she said.
The company hopes to begin shipping genotyped hogs to Japan during the current quarter, Kuhn said. “Ultimately we would like to spread this out to our [other customers], but it’s a function of the market as well,” she said. “In this case, Japan is crying hard for this.”
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, said Kuhn. She stressed, however, that while there is no porcine equivalent of bovine spongiform encephalopathy, “foot-in-mouth disease, while it does not have the same implications for human consumption [as BSE], is a serious issue with respect with containment of disease.”
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,” said Kuhn.
Maple Leaf will spend the CA$1.2 million to genotype 30,000 sows, which will produce hogs to be shipped abroad. She added that while it will cost CA$40 per sow to genotype this initial population — Maple Leaf will ship blood samples to Orchid’s Cellmark unit in the United Kingdom — the price will scale back as the company begins amortizing across larger producer populations. “It is an affordable cost,” she said.
According to Hartshorne, the cost breaks down to roughly CA$.80 per piglet, assuming each of the 30,000 producer sows gives birth to 50 offspring in a lifetime. “The beauty of this system is that you only have to test the maternal sows,” he said.
Kuhn said Maple Leaf has paid for all of the R&D costs of this program, but added that the firm is currently speaking with the Canadian government about financial assistance and incentives. Hartshorne added that there “has been considerable [government] interest” to apply genotyping technology to this industry, and that “this service need not necessarily be limited to the pork industry.”
Maple Leaf employs 18,000 people and had CA$5.1 billion in sales in 2002, said Kuhn.
As for Orchid, Hartshorne said the first year of the deal “is important … for us; we fully anticipate that ... this will grow to become a significant sector for us.”