Mandatory. Few words can match the word's ability to trigger in folks such stiff-legged, braced defiance. That's particularly true when you refer to a demographic like U.S. beef producers, a group that always has defended vigorously its independence.

The realities of today's life in a global world, however, are that everyone is being forced to surrender some independence. It's increasingly becoming the price of doing business in a modern world so compressed by the speed of transportation and a swelling volume of trade that practically no corner of the world is more than a few hours away from the potential for a devastating animal disease outbreak.

It's with the intent of more quickly responding to such situations that scores of industry representatives from all segments of the industry gathered to develop an action plan. The plan calls for a mandatory system of animal identification (ID), using radio-frequency identification (RFID) technology, to allow traceback on any animal within 48 hours of a disease outbreak.

Is Such A System Needed?

One need only look at the United Kingdom and the double whammy it absorbed via outbreaks of bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) in the 1980s and foot-and-mouth disease in the 1990s. A more recent lesson, both in time and proximity, is the devastation wrought on the Canadian beef industry by just a single case of BSE in an Alberta cow last May.

Like it or not, and many producers don't, while most folks are ambivalent but anxious about its cost in time and dollars, such a mandatory system will happen in the U.S. Currently, USDA officially says it's not promoting a mandatory program of livestock ID. But with the 48-hour traceback goal the agency seeks, it's a mile-wide stretch of the imagination to believe the program won't be mandatory in the end.

A Look At RFID

This issue of BEEF is dedicated solely to examining RFID, the technology that appears to have the inside track to become the foundation of such a traceback system. Inside, you'll find articles detailing the technology, its providers, the specifications, the workings of the system, some hints at structuring a system for your individual operation and the RFID experiences of some of your industry counterparts.

The issue's centerpiece is the result of an exclusive survey (p. 10) of the firms dealing in the nuts and bolts of the RFID business. However, to get the full value of this survey conducted by Dale Blasi, Kansas State University Extension beef specialist, one needs to access the entire interactive table available at www.beefstockerusa.org. That's where you'll find a wealth of detail on the companies, the equipment they offer, as well as costs, specifications, etc.

This December issue of BEEF is designed to add to the industry awareness of animal traceback in general, and RFID technology specifically. It's a fairly certain bet that a mandatory program is coming. Now's the time to learn about the program so that, when it does come, you can make it work for you.