Never mind the fact that quickly containing an outbreak of a virulent animal disease, such as foot-and-mouth disease, demands being able to ID individual animals and their lifetime movement.

Overlook the fact that ridding the nation of lingering cattle diseases such as brucellosis and tuberculosis requires an animal ID system, which the very eradication programs for these diseases used to provide.

Forget the fact McDonald's, the largest beef buyer in the U.S. and the world, is paying a premium for source-verified beef on its way to requiring that all of its U.S. beef — some one billion lbs. last year — be verifiable for source, which requires animal ID (see page 18). Or, that Wal-Mart, the nation's largest beef retailer, convened its largest suppliers last summer to hear how they intended to provide Wal-Mart with source verification for beef.

Ignore all of that.

If you're a Japanese beef consumer today, you can walk up to a computer kiosk near the meat counter of a grocery store. By punching in the code for any package of beef, you immediately retrieve information about who grew the cattle the meat came from, what the animal was fed and how it was handled, as well as who grew the feed the animal received and how it was handled. It's possible because animal ID and traceability is mandatory in Japan.

Earlier this year, the European Union (EU) established a rule making it mandatory for all member countries to provide continuous traceability throughout the food chain for all foods.

Australia is well on its way to having a mandatory whole-of-life individual animal ID system in place by July 2007. The root of it is a mandatory premises ID system the country has had in place since the 1960s, established in response to U.S. brucellosis regulations.

In Canada, individual animal ID has been mandatory for several years, and they're making strides toward adding animal movement traceability to it.

In South American countries, such as Argentina, individual animal ID is mandatory across the board, or at least for export.

ID is not traceability

No, animal ID is not traceability. ID merely enables traceability, which makes source-verification and process-verification possible. Consequently, ID and traceability can't make meat safer or prevent foreign animal disease (FAD) from entering a country.

Yes, the beef industries in the countries mentioned differ vastly from the U.S. in terms of targeted attributes and sheer volume. Most other countries are also more dependent on beef imports and exports for industry survival.

But this is the type of ID-based traceability information the beef industry in other countries is providing. It's the kind of information consumers in those countries already expect.

“The U.S. is woefully behind. It's almost embarrassing what we do when you consider the level of traceability development in these other countries.” That's what Gary Smith told participants at last month's International Livestock Congress (ILC) in Houston, TX. He is a Colorado State Univeristy Distinguished Professor of Meat Science and holder of the Monfort Endowed Chair for Meat Science.

The dearth of a U.S. ID system capable of providing this type of traceability has obviously added to short-term problems, such as the majority of U.S. beef export markets still being closed since a single case of BSE was discovered in December 2003. But the longer-term implications are even spookier.

Brett Stuart of the U.S. Meat Export Federation, says global beef demand is projected to grow 22% by 2015.

“One of the biggest international challenges we believe the U.S. beef industry has is that it only exports 13% of its beef production,” Stuart says.

In other words, even before BSE shut the doors to international trade — when 13% of production exported was equivalent to about $15/cwt. on a fed basis — U.S. willingness to provide assurances necessary to expand the market was already lacking. Logic says further unwillingness will prevent the opportunity to participate in the growth of global beef demand, as well.

Not surprisingly, ILC participants — invited industry thought leaders from the U.S. and other countries — came to consensus last month that the U.S. should have a mandatory animal ID and traceability system.

Progress inching ahead

The U.S. hasn't ignored completely the need for a standardized national ID system. Bob Hillman, Texas Animal Health Commission (TAHC) executive director, says, “We all recognize we need the National Animal Identification System (NAIS) to be fully functional today.” He emphasizes that need exists as much for eradication of existing diseases as for control of an FAD introduced to this country.

USDA worked with industry participants to develop NAIS — a voluntary program, at least at the outset. The ultimate goal is to be able to track any head of livestock to all previous locations of residence within 48 hours, for the purposes of disease surveillance and animal health monitoring.

The foundation of this system is premises registration, which will ultimately enable tracking animals to specific locations. According to USDA, 35 states have premises registration systems up and running, with another handful in the process of doing so. Some states are even making premises registration mandatory.

The next steps in the NAIS process — individual animal ID (with cattle) or lot ID (with pork and poultry), and movement reporting of these individual animals and lots — gets murkier.

According to USDA, official NAIS ID numbers should be ready for distribution later this year. The agency also issued a rule allowing electronic tags conforming to ISO standards to be grandfathered into NAIS.

There's a slug of USDA-funded pilot programs being conducted, too, in order to test out equipment and NAIS principles in hopes of uncovering what works and what doesn't. These projects are supposed to be completed by next November.

But there are still no official NAIS rules from USDA, meaning it's not yet known, for instance, whether USDA will adopt the beef industry's recommendation that electronic RFID tags be required for cattle.

Of course, there's plenty of industry debate about what the final rules should be when it comes to larger issues, too, such as confidentiality and will who bear the cost.

“It will take some time to develop the final NAIS rule. However, that will not slow us down from developing, evaluating and implementing the various NAIS components,” says Gary Wilson. He's co-chair of the NAIS Cattle Working Group and a member of the NAIS subcommittee to the Secretary of Agriculture's Advisory Committee on Foreign Animal Disease and Poultry Disease.

Wilson says, “Historically, many of our current animal disease programs started out as a cooperative effort between livestock producers and state and federal veterinarians to evaluate how to best control a disease, set the standards, outline the procedures and test the results. Basically, we're taking the same approach with NAIS.”

The speed of molasses

Even if all of the answers were known, and everyone in the industry was gung-ho to get after it, adoption of such a system can only move so fast.

Consider Texas. Hillman estimates there are 200,000 livestock premises to register for NAIS. Just physically assigning these premises registration numbers will take time. So far, Hillman says about 500 Texas premises have registered, and TAHC is receiving another 100 or so applications each week. It would take five years to register the state's livestock premises if 770 were signing up each week.

Nationally, there are approximately 875,000 livestock premises that have beef cattle, according to the last Census of Agriculture.

So, with the best of intentions and efforts, implementing NAIS across the cattle industry, let alone the rest of the livestock industry, is still several years away.

“I think progress is being made (on NAIS),” Hillman says. “It's always slower than we'd like, but we're moving forward as rapidly as we can, keeping in mind we need to do it carefully and try to do it right.”

Of course, if NAIS were in place tomorrow, unless USDA deviates sharply from the program's intended purpose, NAIS data will be accessible only to animal health officials and only for the purposes of animal disease surveillance and animal health monitoring.

Consequently, data for source- and process-verification demanded by the market will have to be provided by other systems. Such systems could potentially also use NAIS ID numbers, but as a reference point for information that can be shared with others besides animal health officials.

Perhaps it's a system someone somewhere has up their sleeve for country-of-origin labeling (COOL), the law set to begin in September 2006. It would require all retailers to verify the country of origin of the beef they sell.

As a cattle producer himself, Wilson points out, “I have calves dropping on the ground today that will be marketed under COOL. It's extremely important that the livestock industry and stakeholders stay together and patiently work our way through this fog.

“If we stay together, at the end of the day, my cow or calf will have one electronic tag in its ear that meets my responsibility to enhance disease surveillance through NAIS, as well as meet the protocols associated with source-verification and other programs such as COOL,” he says.

For all the reasons cited above, though, and for challenges yet uncovered, Smith wonders simply, “How long can we afford to wait?”