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Facial recognition technology for farm animals could help make tastier meat

People truly care about the wellbeing of the animals that end up on their plate. Actually, let me correct that and say it like it is: they only care about animal welfare because happy and healthy livestock make for tastier meat, duh.

And it looks like things are only kicking off in the meat processing business. In yet another facial recognition technology feat—one that, for once, will probably please most people (or carnivores, at least)—we’ll soon be able to screen the faces of farm animals in order to properly ‘care’ for them.

In other words, ear tags will make way for biometric passports, and all this in the name of better-tasting meat. Here’s exactly how the technology will work and how it could change the meat industry.

From border checkpoints to barns

Imagine that you’ve just landed in a foreign country after a long flight—I’m talking double digits long. You’re exhausted and sore from sitting for literal hours in an economy seat squished between two strangers. Your hair is greasy and your skin as dry as a bone. As you rush out of the plane like the rest of the other passengers—no one really knows exactly why they hurry, they just do—you think to yourself, “Almost there.”

Only one obstacle remains in your way: the border checkpoint. But hey, no stress, you’re among the lucky ones because you’ve got a biometric passport, meaning that instead of having to queue longer and interact with a real person, you can simply swipe your top-tier travel document, stay put for a quick piccie and an obligatory face scan and you’re all done—already on your way to grab your suitcase and get the heck out of that awful place.

Now, try to think of a similar situation, but instead of humans travelling around the world for leisure, picture cows and pigs unknowingly spending their whole life waiting for their unavoidable slaughter. This is where this new tech comes in.

Pigs—along with other popular meat options like cows, poultry and lambs—would be issued with biometric passports based on facial recognition technology, giving farmers a more practical and welfare-friendly way of identifying animals than ear notches, aka the current industry standards.

Identifying pigs based on their unique facial features could in turn enable them to receive individualised food and veterinary care, and be traced as they go through meat processing. With the help of advanced algorithms and machine learning, we’d be able to distinguish between the faces of even the most similar-looking animals.

Furthermore, this type of assessment could be conducted from afar, without humans having to interfere in the non-domesticated livestock’s lives—going as far as to pick on visual cues such as tension in an animal’s neck, the shape of its eyes, nose bunching and ear placement.

And, as first noted by Food Navigator, even signs as small as the ones listed above could help farmers get a clear understanding of their animals’ welfare, “If the white of a pig’s eye is showing, it may indicate aggression. When a pig’s ears are pinned back against its head, it may indicate a negative emotion or aversion,” the publication explained.

If the idea of happier farm animals and therefore better quality meat has already got you sold and salivating, don’t get too excited just yet, as there might be a catch—higher animal welfare standards resulting in tastier products would undoubtedly come with a higher price tag.

Does humanely raised meat actually taste better?

Up until this point, I went along with the whole narrative that meat coming from a more humane or ‘cage-free’ source always means better quality. But is this actually the case or are we just prone to believe so for obvious moral reasons? After all, doesn’t wine tend to taste better when you believe it to be more expensive than your usual corner shop go-to bottle?

Well, researchers Eric Anderson of Tufts University and Lisa Feldman Barrett of Northeastern University once faced the same question and took it upon themselves to investigate it for a paper published in the peer-reviewed journal PLOS One back in 2016.

“People believe they experience the world objectively, but research continually demonstrates that beliefs influence perception,” the team wrote in the paper’s abstract. “Our goal was to test whether beliefs about how animals were raised (whether they suffered) would influence the experience of eating meat,” they continued in the introduction.

To do so, Anderson and Feldman Barrett conducted three studies in which they had college students sample jerky and roast beef presented to them in packaging that had been tampered with by the researchers in order to include different animal welfare labels than their original ones.

“People were led to believe one sample was raised on a ‘factory farm’ (negative belief) while the other was ‘humanely raised’ (positive belief).” Each participant was exposed to both labels in randomised order, yet two identical samples were prepared and given to them.

Participants then had to rate the two pieces of meat’s look, smell and taste. And surprise, surprise—even though the students often didn’t differentiate between the control and humane conditions, they often gave the meat a “penalty” in terms of smell, taste and “pleasantness” after they were told it came from a factory farm.

In other words, although Anderson and Feldman Barrett’s results didn’t prove that animals treated in less humane ways than others don’t taste as good, their research did highlight the fact that there isn’t such a thing as ‘objective’ perception when it comes to food, and more.

Scientists are toilet-training cows to combat climate change

It’s your fever dream but also a coveted way to tackle climate change. Collaborating with Germany’s Federal Research Institute for Animal Health and Research Institute for Farm Animal Biology (FBN), a group of researchers have found a solution to reduce the environmental damage caused by livestock waste: toilet-training cows.

Farmed cattle are known for their notorious contribution to greenhouse gas emissions—producing roughly 66 to 88 pounds of faeces and 8 gallons of urine each day. When cows are kept outdoors, as in the case of New Zealand and Australia where they are free to roam and relieve themselves at their own leisure, the nitrogen from their urine breaks down into the soil. This results in the production of two toxic substances: nitrate and nitrous oxide.

While nitrate from these urine patches bleeds into lakes, rivers and aquifers, nitrous oxide emits into the environment as a long-lasting greenhouse gas which is 300 times more potent than carbon dioxide. The former pollutes water bodies and contributes to the excessive growth of weeds and toxic algae while the latter accounts for about 12 per cent of New Zealand’s overall greenhouse gas emissions.

On the flip side, when cows are sheltered in barns—like in Europe and North America—the practice results in the production of yet another polluting gas: ammonia. This by-product is produced when the nitrogen from cow urine mixes with faeces on the barn floor. Confining cows in such spaces could also be detrimental to their wellbeing in general. On the quest to strike a balance between their personal health and our planet’s, scientists decided to test and dispel a common myth surrounding cattle.

In a study, published in the peer-reviewed scientific journal Current Biology, researchers proved that cows can be taught how to control their defecation or urination, just like human babies. “Cattle, like many other animals or farm animals, are quite clever and they can learn a lot. Why shouldn’t they be able to learn how to use a toilet?” said Doctor Jan Langbein, an animal psychologist at the FBN, in a press release. In their project, funded by the Volkswagen Foundation, the scientists applied principles from behavioural psychology to train young cattle to urinate in a particular place using a procedure called ‘backward chaining’.

In phase one, a total of 16 calves were confined in a latrine pen and rewarded with an electrolyte mixture or crushed barley when they urinated. This established the pen as an ‘ideal’ place to excrete. The calves were then placed in an alley outside and rewarded for entering the pen and urinating in the same place. If they began excreting in the alley, they were discouraged with a ‘deterrent’. “We first used in-ear headphones and we played a very nasty sound whenever they urinated outside,” Langbein said in the press release. “We thought this would punish the animals, but they didn’t care. Ultimately, a splash of water worked well as a gentle deterrent.”

The calves were trained in this procedure—which the scientists have conveniently named “MooLoo training”—for 45 minutes every other day. After 15 days of training, 11 out of the 16 calves involved in the experiment were successfully “MooLoo trained.” Majority of them also learned the skill within 20 to 25 urinations—quicker than the time it usually takes to toilet train three to four year-old children.

“In a few years all cows will go to a toilet,” Langbein summed up. However, scaling this method for large-scale application in the agricultural industry involves two main challenges, which the scientists are planning to focus on in the coming stages of the project. First up is the automatic detection of urination in the latrine pen to deliver treats without human intervention. Optimal locations and number of latrine pens are the next hurdle. The latter is a particularly challenging issue in countries like New Zealand, where cattle spend most of their time in open paddocks rather than in barns.

“Part of our future research will require understanding how far cattle are willing to walk to use a pen,” the researchers wrote in a column for The Conversation. “And more needs to be done to understand how to best use this technique with animals in both indoor and outdoor farming contexts.” But what they do know for sure is that the MooLoo technique can significantly reduce the environmental impact of farmed cattle. “The more urine we can capture, the less we’ll need to reduce cattle numbers to meet emissions targets—and the less we’ll have to compromise on the availability of milk, butter, cheese and meat from cattle,” they concluded.

Dinosaurs may have excreted their way into extinction but the odds of history repeating itself is finally at an all-time low.