I don't agree with folks who view USDA's announcement last week that national ID would be a voluntary program as a big surprise. In my mind, the statement only reinforced the agency's position all along.

First of all, USDA believes the whole "mandatory" issue has been a stumbling block. And, actually, there's nobody calling for mandatory ID. One could argue the global marketplace and our biggest customers are calling for a mandatory program, but they really aren't. They just want their product source-, age-, or even process-verified. The National Cattlemen's Beef Association has remained steadfast in its position that national ID be voluntary, as well.

So the logical question is: "Is national ID dead? Those who view cow-calf producers as not being customer driven, while being totally resistant to change, will claim "voluntary" kills the program. I can understand their contention because protecting an entire industry from a debilitating threat is a lot different than a marketing type of program where the market provides the economic incentives for change.

I must admit that, for some reason, the bio-terrorism scenarios painted by experts don't seem quite real to me. I've listened to veterinarians and animal-health experts talk about how quickly virulent diseases can spread across a national population, and still I kind of shrug.

I'm glad they're vigilant and working on this, but I'm not going to waste much of my precious managerial time on a risk that seems far more remote than say $3.50 corn, drought and the like.

Right now, the vast majority of U.S. producers consider the risk of bio-terrorism or an animal-disease emergency too little to merit the burden of a national ID system. Still, progressive producers will respond to the demands of our customers and, in essence, implement a far more sophisticated and dynamic system as a result.

Not long ago, we were debating if the government should mandate how we market and label our product rather than allow market signals to work. Now, we're seeing the government step aside and allow a voluntary program in an area (protecting the consumer and the U.S. cattle herd from disease) that by its nature is a legitimate role for government.

It's refreshing and positive that this industry continues to fight for independence and for managerial freedom in decision-making. It also indicates this industry trusts its producers to listen to marketplace signals, and produce and market a product they believe the consumer wants and or demands, without the intrusive mandate of government.

Free enterprise, individual choice, freedom, capitalism, and the marketplace over government intervention are principles worth preserving. Certainly some will argue the marketplace response will be too slow and, if we have a problem in the near term, we won't be prepared.

That point is valid; government mandates are usually quicker. They're also almost universally more expensive, more cumbersome, and more limiting.

Of course, herd health is a different ballgame. It's a governmental role. National ID is another one. But government failed to provide leadership on the issue and abdicated it role; the marketplace is filling the gap. Will any serious cattleman not have electronic ID in his calves' ears two years from now?

If a case can't be made for why "voluntary" can't work, then it should be preferred to "mandatory" every time. Mandatory should be considered only when third-party oversight is required, and where the majority is potentially hurt badly because the minority elects out of the system.
-- Troy Marshall