Uruguay has much cause to thank its cows. The small South American country, which routinely makes headlines as the most progressive on the continent, is the sixth-largest exporter of meat in the world, and its position will only be fortified by a new, rigorous tracking system that follows the cows from birth and monitors their movements, health and growth.

Each of more than 11 million Uruguayan cows will get an ID number that keeps track of their health history, where they are from and where they are at any given moment – from birth to the moment they are sold for their meat. This system, which provides up-to-date information to Uruguayan farmers, aims at keeping the thriving meat industry growing.

The innovation is the answer to the 2001 aftosa plague that infected almost 10 percent of the cows in the country and almost brought the industry to an end. Aftosa, an infection of the mouth and feet of cows, is a highly contagious disease and it spread in a matter of days to the whole of the country. It took Uruguay five years to recover, with a rigorous policy of vaccination, a reform of control systems and sacrificing the infected animals. By 2006, the industry was back, and it started developing the tracking system.

“If tomorrow there was a plague like that of 2001, we would be able to point out where it started and how it is spreading, and put a cap on it,” said María Nela González, director of the Uruguayan Sistema Nacional de Información Ganadera (National System Of Livestock Information, or SNIG).

According to the government, 100 percent of the cows are identified and registered, and 80 percent have a microchip in the ear that lets them be located at any moment.

The meat industry is one of Uruguay’s economic pillars, and its most thriving export – between June 2012 and July 2013, more than 390,000 tons of meat were exported to some 100 markets. A quarter of the total went to China, which in only a year has become Uruguay’s main client for beef, netting the country $190 million, according to the Instituto Nacional de Carnes del Uruguay (National Meat Institute). The U.S., the EU and Russia are next in the list of customers of Uruguayan beef.

The total sales for last year added up to $1.47 billion.