When the U.S. National Animal Identification (USAID) Team carried its recommendations to the U.S. Animal Health Association (USAHA) in October, it set the stage for more than a mandatory, national, standardized, individual animal livestock identification system. If ultimately implemented, the move sets the stage for producers to define and market assets tied to individual identity separate from the cattle themselves.

The mandatory recommendations were put forth with the sole purpose of disease surveillance. Such a system would enable trace-back of animals suspected of carrying a foreign animal disease (FAD), and all their previous production locations, within 48 hours.

That need is obvious. In fact, it's a notion that's been kicked around for better than three decades. Now, there is finally enough consensus among livestock industries to craft a program.

The USAID Team includes a cross-section of livestock producers, producer groups, animal health care providers, state and federal government officials, etc. It was assembled at the behest of the USAHA, a key advising organization to government.

Specifically, the recommendations set the cattle stage for the following timetable:

  • Premise ID required by July 1, 2004.

  • Animals moving in interstate commerce identified with official USAID individual or group/lot numbers by July 1, 2005, with interstate movement of animals reported to the official database.

  • Animals moving within intrastate commerce identified with official USAID individual or group/lot numbers by July 1, 2006, with intrastate movement of animals reported to the official database.

Long Way To Go

It's a long way and an estimated several hundred million dollars to get from these recommendations to the reality of every head of livestock being identifiable and traceable within 48 hours. Likewise, there are plenty of details to resolve relative to privacy. Also unknown is who pays the tab.

But just a few years ago, few would have bet that such a consensus would be as far along as it currently is. You can find all of the specific recommendations at www.usaip.info.

The bottom line is that it appears all cattle producers will need to gear up to identify all their stock and report both interstate and intrastate movements of them. That's regardless of whether there is an ID-related government mandate such as country-of-origin labeling (COOL) or a market mandate such as export certificates being required by trading partners.

Most of us in the industry would rather not be mandated to do anything. But such a system isn't only necessary in the evolving global marketplace, it could provide producers new assets that can be marketed.

Picture this: Standard ID across a broad swath of the industry, full traceability of all animals and the type of cross-segment cooperation never seen before on any scale. With these building blocks, the food supply chain could collectively decide to establish new pre-harvest food production and food safety best practices to provide consumers more peace of mind, while also mitigating some of its own liability by lowering risk.

Such assurances, tied to ID, could be marketed separate from the trade of cattle, beef, pigs, pork, or whatever. If consumers paid for it, such a scenario would represent new equity flowing into the industry.

This notion is already in the works, with enough agreement among participants to galvanize more than half of U.S. fed cattle, one Big-3 packer and one fast-food giant into a unified, member-owned cooperative organization called VeriPrime. VeriPrime's purpose is to develop and market such assurances to the consumer through a retail-marketing fee.

Whether VeriPrime is ultimately successful or not, it underscores the potential value of identity coupled with attributes of consumer concern. In light of a mandatory national ID system accelerating the potential to exploit this new asset, producers need to decide now whether they will take ownership of this asset and market it, or simply give it away to buyers as a condition of sale.

VeriPrime is a member-owned, member-directed producer cooperative that costs nothing to join. It exists to pay its members to provide food production and food safety assurances to consumers, rather than charge producers anything. These services are licensed to retailers and quick-service restaurants for a fee, which is redistributed to members who provided the service.

VeriPrime acts as a general contractor for its members. Rather than competing with any existing companies or organizations, VeriPrime provides the mechanism by which, if successful, its members will have both new money and the incentive to pay for existing technologies and services already being provided by a number of providers.

For more on VeriPrime, go to www.veriprime.com.

Editor's Note: In addition to being a BEEF contributing editor, Wes Ishmael is vice-president of communications for the VeriPrime effort. He also served as a subcommittee member of the USAID development team.