The debut in January 2001 of the Canadian ID system was fortuitous, in light of recent world outbreaks of bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) and foot-and-mouth disease (FMD).

The impetus for the system was Canada's brush with BSE in 1993 when Canada's only case of BSE was diagnosed in a purebred cow imported from the UK, where it had been exposed to the disease.

“Suddenly, Canada faced a very serious situation,” says feeder Ben Thorlakson, Airdrie, AB, a former president of the Canadian Cattlemen's Association (CCA). “We found ourselves in the position of having to act quickly to eradicate not only that animal, but all cattle with the slightest connection to that animal.”

Before Agriculture Canada and Agri-Food Canada got through with its damage control, Taiwan had halted imports of all bovine products from Canada, and Japan was threatening to do the same. All cattle in Canada that had been imported from the UK were destroyed, along with all the offspring and herdmates of the one infected cow.

“We were able to continue exporting beef, cattle and genetics to the world,” explains Thorlakson.

Because the infected cow was a purebred, it was relatively easy to trace her offspring and herdmates. Thorlakson says the incident showed Canadian producers just how big the problem could have been if BSE was diagnosed in a commercial animal.

“We hadn't had a program for individually identifying commercial cattle in Canada since 1985 when brucellosis was eradicated,” says Thorlakson. “That close call (with BSE) inspired cattle industry organizations to begin lobbying for a national ID program.”

Canada's national cattle ID system relies on official eartags purchased by cattle producers and used only once. At purchase, producers are asked to provide basic information such as name, mailing address and telephone number.

The tag numbers and corresponding producer information are stored in the Canadian Cattle Identification Agency's (CCIA) database until CCIA is notified (usually by a packing plant) of the final disposition of that animal. The number is then retired. Access to the stored information is not shared beyond CCIA, says general manager Julie Stitt.

“This information, along with the individual numbers off the tags, is transmitted to the CCIA database by the tag manufacturer or distributor,” explains Stitt.

If a health or safety issue is identified with a particular animal, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) requests the herd of origin information from CCIA. CFIA uses the information and the location at which the problem was identified to begin tracing that animal's movements.

Stitt says CFIA can and does trace cattle health and beef safety problems found at packing plants without individual animal ID, but it's time-consuming and costly. “With this ID system we have two points from which to begin the search. This means less testing, less quarantining and less market disruption,” she says.

Start-up money for the CCIA came through grants from Canada's Beef Industry Development Fund and the federal government. The program will be self-sustainable through sources such as a small surcharge on tags sold and industry services, Stitt says.

Producer acceptance of the program is growing, Stitt adds. “Recent international events such as the foot-and-mouth outbreaks and BSE have quieted a lot of the grumbling.”

France

In France, one sector of private industry has taken cattle ID and meat tracing into its own hands. Soviba Group's 4,500 cattle, 1,200 pig and 400 sheep producers have developed a computerized, farm-to-consumer traceback system. Soviba is the third largest consumer meats company in France and is recognized as the leader in “quality” initiatives.

In line with a mandatory national ID program, Soviba farmers receive a passport containing herd number, breed, date of birth, etc., issued by the cooperative within eight days after a calf is born. This stays with the calf throughout its lifetime.

In Soviba's packing plant, the cattle passport is recorded and a batch number is allocated to each carcass. This information is updated throughout the disposition of the meat. Thus, each tray of meat, even ground beef, can be traced back to its original farm.

“We can guarantee the origin of the products bought by the consumer — breed, farmer, place of birth and fattening methods,” says d'Olivier Kriegk, Soviba's scientific director. “This traceability also makes it possible to monitor farming and feeding conditions.”

A unique traceback protocol allows shoppers to scan a label on a package of meat and access information about the producer who raised the animal. In addition, consumers can visit the Soviba Web site (www.soviba.com) and learn such information as an animal's ID number, breed, sex and age. They also can access a photo, name, address and map pinpointing the producer's farm.

Northern Ireland

Until the FMD outbreak in February, Northern Ireland credits its computerized cattle ID system for allowing it to export beef months ahead of the rest of the UK. The system was developed by the Department of Agriculture for Northern Ireland (DANI) in the late 1980s to help eradicate tuberculosis and brucellosis.

Each animal is tagged at birth. Within 10 days, information about the calf and its tag number goes into DANI's central cattle computer system.

“Northern Ireland was prepared for this kind of doomsday situation,” says William Waugh, a cattle buyer from Belfast. “Northern Ireland was in the key position to bring British Isles beef back into Europe.”

Mexico

The national cattlemen's association of Mexico — Confederación Nacional Ganadera (CNG) — is currently looking at a system of individually identifying cattle, then labeling the beef products derived from them.

CNG plans to develop the technology for a system that will both provide carcass quality data to producers and protect and enhance its national and international markets. CNG would ultimately like to implement a system that would see a barcode on a package of beef identifying the animal from which it came.

New Zealand

Monitoring of sales of spring weaner cattle in New Zealand showed a near 80% compliance with New Zealand's new compulsory ID program for cattle and deer. This was the first sale of a major group of stock affected by the program since it was implemented in July 1999.

New Zealand's Animal Health Board reports it is pleased with the acceptance of the program so far. The primary purpose of the New Zealand program is to trace sources of bovine tuberculosis when infected animals are found at slaughter.

Australia

Officials in Australia are questioning whether their proposed voluntary livestock ID program will be adequate to meet international marketplace demands. The country is looking at the mandatory programs coming into force in Canada, New Zealand and the EU, says AgForce president Keith Adams.

“If there is widespread adoption of the program by Australian cattle producers, then we may gain a significant advantage over our main global competitor, the U.S.,” says Adams. “We will be at a great disadvantage in the international market if we haven't had a major take-up of the program within the next three to four years.”