Even if Japan increases the age requirement for U.S. beef eligible for export to that country – or abolishes it altogether, as many hope – odds are that demand for cattle source and age verification will continue.

On one hand, John Saunders, CEO of IMI Global – a leading provider of verification services – explains if Japan raised the age limit to 30 months, for instance, the nation would likely continue demanding verification through Quality System Assessment (QSA) or Process Verified Programs (PVP) (see “QSA vs. PVP”) rather than depend on animal dentition.

On the other hand, Brian Bertelsen, director of field operations for U.S. Premium Beef, LLC, the majority owner of National Beef, explains, “If the Japanese government changes the age requirement, our customers there tell us they would still prefer to buy beef that is source-and age-verified because of the traceability associated with it. In fact, customers from around the world tell us that.”

Since BSE was discovered in the U.S. in December 2003, Japan has restricted U.S. beef imports to beef coming from cattle younger than 21 months. Though the U.S. has regained much of the export market it lost to BSE, exports to Japan are still a shadow of what they were.

Extrapolating from current U.S. Meat Export Federation numbers, Bertelsen calculates that 2010 beef exports to Japan by volume will be about 31% of the pre-BSE level.

Premiums paid for cattle eligible for export to Japan also suggest demand continues to run ahead of supply. National offers $35/head of fed cattle for source and age verification year-round. For other packers, source and age verification are seasonal based on the availability of cattle, meaning that a premium may not be offered at some times of the year, while hefty ones may be offered at other times.

Incidentally, whether or not cow-calf producers and stockers receive part of that premium on eligible cattle they sell depends on the buyer.

“The supply of source- and age-eligible cattle is still growing, but it’s still a small percentage of the cattle we buy,” Bertelsen says.

On the other side of the fence, Saunders also says producer enrollment in PVP and QSA programs through his company is still growing, but at a slower rate than two years ago.

One path to traceability

In addition to the likelihood that demand will continue for source and age verification, based on the Japanese beef export market, cattle continue being enrolled in PVP and QSA programs for export to Europe (NHTC), programs that verify cattle health management, feeding management, cattle breed, traceability between specific supply points, data integrity, and the list goes on an on.

In each case, verification requires cattle identification, which in turn is the lynchpin of the enhanced traceability Bertelsen mentioned earlier. “It would open more doors to U.S. exports,” he says.

Fact is, the U.S. lags behind its international competitors when it comes to preharvest traceability. Yes, the U.S. cattle industry is unique in terms of scope, volume and product quality, but it’s no closer to a national standardized traceability system than it was almost a decade ago when seeds of the recently defunct National Animal Identification System (NAIS) were sown.

NAIS was never intended to offer a means of verification for marketing purposes, but that added value of such an infrastructure was hard to ignore. In its place, USDA is currently writing a rule for the Animal Disease Traceability program (see “National ID – Round II”).

Source is the foundation

And, Saunders explains, “If you’re going to verify anything about food, the first thing you have to know is the source.”

Consequently, Saunders believes verification should be viewed less like a multiple choice – either this or that attribute – and more like a dynamic framework that allows producers to grow in different directions.

“As a base, verify cattle for source and age,” Saunders suggests. “And do so in such a way that you can add verification for other attributes. I’ve always been a proponent of producers documenting things they’re already doing rather than trying to find other things to do.”

Consider a producer who manages cattle without growth promotants or antibiotics. Those are just cattle. If the producer documents that management through a USDA-approved program, those cattle become eligible for more markets.

With that said, remember that enrolling in a QSA or PVP means accepting a higher level of accountability via providing records and being willing to have those records audited.

Moreover, verification of any cattle attribute doesn’t necessarily add value.

“What we’ve really learned is that if you’ve got verified cattle without a progressive genetics and management system behind them, you won’t see the benefit of the producer with verified cattle that do have the genetics and management behind them,” Saunders says.

The flip side, Saunders explains, is that if a producer verifies cattle through QSA or PVP, buyers usually assume the producer is taking care of the basics, too.

Consumers want to know

“We believe the next big thing consumers want that retailers will pay the supply chain to provide is verified animal welfare,” Saunders says. Again, he emphasizes, it’s not a matter of producers necessarily changing current management practices, but boils down to documenting what they’re already doing.

More than anything, Saunders believes consumers want to know more about where their food comes from. They want to know that the source is verified; they’d like to know it can be traced from the point of retail purchase back to the source of origin. But, more than that, they’d like to know something about the producer.

With that in mind, IMI Global introduced a program aimed at building consumer confidence called Where Food Comes From.®

“In addition to demanding increased transparency regarding the origins and safety of their food, consumers are taking more interest in producers’ claims of animal welfare, natural products and even ‘green’ operations,” Saunders explains. “Our Where Food Comes From consumer-labeling program is the first of its kind that directly connects the consumer with the food-supply chain in a way that fosters confidence at the point of purchase. We believe that as consumers become better educated, they will have more confidence in their food-purchase decisions; the label also gives producers and processors a way to enhance, differentiate and even protect their valuable brands.

National ID – Round II

The Animal Disease Traceability (ADT) program proposed by USDA aims to identify cattle once they enter into interstate commerce. The baseline form of ID proposed is the metal clip tags of the type currently used to identify calfhood vaccinates for bovine brucellosis. At this stage, USDA intends to provide the tags to producers at no cost. USDA intends to publish the proposed rule for ADT by April. You can find more detail about ADT in the October issue of BEEF (see “National ID,” page 46) or at www.aphis.usda.gov/traceability.

QSA vs. PVP
Quality System Assessment (QSA) and Process Verified Programs (PVP) are USDA-approved verification programs that are substantiated by records and auditing.

For age verification, both types of programs provide USDA-approved corroboration that the system used for verifying age is accurate enough to withstand periodic audits by a third-party source.

Simplistically, the major difference between a QSA and PVP is the scope of the program – the processes verified – and the detail involved. PVPs require more detail and cover a broader scope.

Generally speaking, USDA officials say program-compliant identification tags applied at the ranch of origin are key to achieving and maintaining the greatest flexibility in marketing age and source claims with either QSA or PVP. According to program standards, these tags are single-use, tamper-evident tags with a unique, non-repeatable ID number. The tags can be visual, electronic or a combination.

In the case of age verification, producers must furnish proof of cattle age. Depending on the specific QSA or PVP, this could be group calving records for a defined calving season, including when the first and last calf was born, or individual calving records.

Currently, there are 36 PVP programs approved by USDA. There are 26 QSA programs approved by USDA, all verifying claims for source and age.