Hard to believe six years have passed since the cow bearing BSE stole Christmas in the U.S.

Harder to believe there's still no cattle and beef industry consensus for a standardized national animal identification system that could help mitigate the economic impact of the next animal health/consumer crisis.

It's not like the risk is lessening.

About 15% of the food Americans eat is imported, as much as 80% of the seafood, and 50-60% of fresh produce depending on the time of year. That's what David Acheson, MD, told participants at the ID Info Expo in September. Acheson is the managing director of food and import safety practice for Leavitt Partners. Until September, he held a number of roles with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), most recently as associate commissioner of foods, which gave him an agency-wide leadership role for all foods and feed issues.

Those food imports flow into the U.S. through more than 300 ports from more than 150 countries, Acheson says. More than 200,000 foreign facilities are registered with FDA for imports, not counting farms or restaurants. More than 150,000 domestic facilities are registered with FDA.

According to U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP), 11 million cargo containers arrive each year on ships that are off-loaded at U.S. seaports. On a typical day in 2008, CBP personnel processed 1 million travelers entering the U.S. by way of land, sea and air. On the same typical day, CBP agriculture specialists made 4,125 seizures of prohibited meat, plant materials or animal products, (including 435 agricultural pests) at ports of entry.

Of course, animal health and consumer safety concerns can be homegrown. The salmonella outbreak in September 2008, ultimately tied to peanut butter, took about five months to figure out.

A few months before that, another salmonella outbreak (different strain) implicated tomatoes and peppers. It was finally traced to contaminated irrigation water on a farm in Mexico. Figuring that one out took about two months.

Salmonella happens. E. coli O157:H7 happens. BSE happens. Without an effective tracking system that can identify the small part of an industry where such problems occur, consumers have no choice but to indict entire industries.

Incidentally, Paul Clayton, U.S. Meat Export Federation senior vice president, pointed out at the same meeting that a single beef carcass produces about 60 primal cuts or 250 retail cuts. Multiply that by 100,000 beef animals harvested daily and you're at 6 million primal cuts and 25 million retail cuts every day in the U.S.

A few issues back, I suggested the cattle and beef industries needed to decide whether or not a standardized national animal ID system was needed for the purposes of animal health surveillance. If the answer is yes, then get on with sorting it out; if not, then shut up about it. I'm not sure the industry will be granted such a luxury.

In March, Korea, one of this nation's key trading partners for beef, implemented domestic requirements for beef traceability. How long, wonders Clayton, until imported beef will be held to the same standard?

In July, the Food Safety Enhancement Act of 2009 (HR 2749) passed in the House of Representatives. In part it would require the Secretary of Health and Human Services to establish a food tracing system. More specifically, it would “issue traceback regulations that enable the Secretary to identify the history of the food in as short a time as practicable, but no longer than two business days.”

A similar bill was introduced in the U.S. Senate.

Though he wouldn't want to bet money on the chances for either bill, Acheson says, “I think there is the political will to push this legislation forward.”

The list goes on.

In the meantime, it's not like U.S. consumers are beating down the doors to buy more beef.