That is the question – as the U.S. beef industry measures the potentials and pitfalls of a national individual animal identification system.

So far, the beef industry's start and stop and start again approach to standardized national individual animal identification (ID) reads like an adventure in the life of the Keystone Cops.

First, comes a villain most everyone can at least agree to dislike. Uncle Sam assumed that role a year ago when USDA's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service said that if the industry didn't develop a voluntary ID system within three years, then the government would mandate one.

At the time, USDA said a system had to be developed quickly due to the success of its brucellosis eradication program. The end of brucellosis in the U.S. meant that the nation's de facto ID system, which provided the only system to efficiently track the nation's cowherd in the advent of a disease outbreak, would disappear.

USDA registered 9 million head in that program in 1992, compared to just 4 million last year. Though USDA backed off using the word “mandatory” late last year, Uncle Sam's part in the drama was cast.

Next, any worthwhile yarn demands champions of truth and justice intent on besting the bad guys. Arguably, the most visible players for this role have been producer groups such as the National Cattlemen's Beef Association (NCBA), producer-based groups such as the National Institute for Animal Agriculture (NIAA), coordinated production and marketing systems, individual producers and even vendors of ID and ID-related technology.

Finally, the victim presumably in need of protection is every cow/calf producer, stocker operator, feedlot, auction market and packer in the land.

Here's the plot: the entire industry finds itself jammed firmly between a rock and Uncle Sam's sizable fist. These are the two sides of the quandary:

  • Adopt a national system, even a voluntary one, and what does that do to liability risk, business privacy and the cost of production?

  • Ignore the issue, even if the government never mandates a national system. What does that bode for future herd health monitoring and disease surveillance, increased management opportunities and expanded international trade with trading partners already calling for such a system in the U.S.?

Here's an extra element of confusion: different folks define the dilemma, as well as the proposed solutions to it, quite differently.

Untangling The Plot

“What is it that we want? I think lots of people have answered that question, but no one has agreed on the answer. Until we do, it's like building a cow by committee,” says Burke Healey, Oklahoma state veterinarian and four-year chairman of NCBA's animal health and well being committee.

“What is animal ID? Are we talking about a numbering system, the type of ID or an information system?” wonders Healey. “It's such a big thing, it's tough to get your arms wrapped around.”

Indeed. Even if you pretend everybody wants a national system (NCBA members adopted a resolution in favor of developing a voluntary national system at its 2001 annual business meeting — the second resolution in three years), the system needed depends on its goals.

For instance, crafting a system that merely tracks an animal to the operation of origin is one thing. But, it's vastly different from trying to construct a system that tracks cattle through each stage of their production lives with multiple owners adding performance data every step of the way.

Just ask Neil Hammerschmidt, director of dairy herd services for the Holstein Association USA (HAUSA). That association is at least midstream in its innovative Farm Animal and ID Records (FAIR) project, which seeks to define a workable system for the needs of that industry.

HAUSA adopted the American ID Numbering (AIN) system in 1998. This is a 12-digit, alpha-numeric numbering system also being offered by USDA as a standardized numbering system all species could utilize.

Think in terms of your own Social Security number. If you're going to identify anything over time, there is obviously benefit to using unique numbers — one to an individual — so that the number is never repeated.

HAUSA uses the AIN for its organization's registration numbers. The idea is that this same number can be used by health regulatory agencies, milk recording organizations, etc., to identify that one particular animal.

Hammerschmidt says the system works well and already has saved the expense and hassle of multiple-numbering a fair percentage of Holstein cattle. As part of the FAIR project, however, HAUSA also is exploring the feasibility of building an information service robust enough to track individual animals through each step of production. They're already three years into the project.

Time, Money And Manpower

Healey says Oklahoma tested 600,000 head in its brucellosis program last year. Recording tag numbers, describing animals and maintaining the database required a full-time staff of eight people.

“I don't think most people have any idea of the amount of computer and manpower a national system like that would require,” says Healey.

Incidentally, part of the confusion in these discussions stems from the fact that when some people hear the term “individual animal ID,” they assume the talk is about electronic ID (EID). For the sake of clarity, EID is a method of ID. It's not a numbering system, nor is it an ID system in and of itself.

“Whether or not we have a national ID system is an issue that needs to be addressed after we develop standards,” says John Todd. Ranch administrator of Florida-based Rollins Ranches — one of the 10 largest cow/calf operations in the nation — Todd also serves as chairman of NCBA's subcommittee on animal ID standardization.

“It (a national ID system) is pretty nebulous at this point. Until we can tack down the basics, we can't look further down the road,” he adds.

Less vague, however, is the task of Todd's committee. He explains, “We are to establish standards that can be utilized by producers and vendors across the industry to enhance the profitability of individual cattle operations, thus improving the profitability of the industry as a whole… Let's standardize the information for the purpose of profitability. Whether that is something USDA can then use, I don't know.”

What's needed first, however, is a consensus on why such a system is needed. So far, the two primary reasons for a national individual ID system are:

  • Increased marketing and management potential, and

  • Enhanced herd health monitoring and disease surveillance.

As for increased efficiency and market opportunity via individual animal management, Todd has to look no further than his own Rollins operation.

“Because of individual ID, we netted $36/head last year. If you look at the bottom 13 percent of the herd that wasn't performing at least at breakeven level, our profit goes up to $115/head,” Todd says.

That's the result of Rollins' commitment in 1998 to tag every cow, bull and calf on their ranches with EID. Since they first began tracking cattle through the feedlot in 1996, Rollins has followed tens of thousands of its own animals from conception forward.

Todd explains the economic goody — enough to more than pay for the requisite tags, electronic scales, computers, etc., the first year they went to total ID — stems from the newfound ability to sort and manage cattle.

“If we can eliminate the bottom percentage of the cattle, we're doing (the industry) a service. But you can't do it if you can't identify them,” says Todd.

Lemmy Wilson, who owns backgrounding and cattle marketing enterprises in Tennessee and is also chairman of NCBA's live cattle marketing committee, feels likewise.

“Economics will drive it simply because there is so much variation. And, the only way we think we can make a change in a positive way is if we can manage cattle individually. That will require individual ID,” he says.

Healey does offer a word of caution. Although he appreciates the concerns of producers who want to build a system that allows them to collect and share information along the way, he says, “I don't think the marketing benefits of animal ID might be as great as what some people perceive them.”

As an example, Healey says some people illustrate the economic possibilities by foisting up a growing number of special auction sales. Several of these feature calves that have been weaned and pre-conditioned. Then, with the use of EID, they're commingled and sorted into uniform load lots.

Healey admits these calves are earning documented premiums at the sale barn. “But, those things in and of themselves without ID bring value to cattle. Sometimes, I don't think we put the whole picture out there for people to make a judgment.”

Glenn Slack, NIAA executive director, is convinced national herd health is a sufficient reason for developing a standardized national ID system.

“If we are going to trade with countries around the globe, we have to accept that the ability to identify a hazard and trace it back to its origin will likely be a prerequisite,” Slack says. “Think of it this way: If we were buying animals or animal products from a foreign country, what would we expect of them?”

Lynn Heinze, vice president of information services for the U.S. Meat Export Federation, explains, “Just in the last few weeks, we've had several trading partners indicate they are looking at some sort of certification or ID system (for the beef they import).”

For instance, Heinze points out that in January Korea asked USDA to certify that any beef they imported from the U.S. be in the U.S. for at least six months prior to harvest. Negotiations continue.

“We may get swept into a situation where we may have to verify with some type of system where the cattle originated,” Heinze says.

While there may never be a government-mandated ID or certification system, he adds, “What it boils down to is that ID will be a competitive advantage for the U.S. producer, processor or alliance who can step into a market and say, ‘Not only do we have a product that tastes good and is affordably priced, but we can tell you where it comes from.’”

Already, exports of beef and variety meats account for 12% of all U.S. beef production, Heinze points out.

Moreover, Slack says that when it comes to trade, ID is less an issue than traceability. He explains, “Many of our trading partners and trade competitors have an elaborate, trustworthy trace-back system in place. So, when our trade officials and export groups carry an archaic ID system to the table, it puts them at an immediate disadvantage when they could have had the upper hand. This can be addressed with a national, coordinated system for ID.”

Gary Wilson, current chairman of NCBA's animal health and well being committee, doesn't totally agree.

“Some say we need a national system to enhance food safety and animal health. Well, just because you put a tag in their ears doesn't make them healthy or safe,” he says. He adds that France had a fortress of an ID program in place, yet it did nothing to protect its market from the ravages of BSE.

“Quite frankly, from a health and food safety standpoint, if an animal disease problem like BSE or foot-and-mouth disease were to crop up, it won't occur just in that individual animal. Cattle other than the individual in question will have been exposed to the same management or pathogen,” says Wilson.

That Liability Thing

That begs the same question from system advocates and nay sayers alike. If there's a national ID system and an animal is identified with a safety or health problem, who is liable and how can anyone be sure the animal identified is in fact the right animal to begin with?

“Bottom line, from an animal health standpoint, we (the committee) support a voluntary ID system,” says Gary Wilson. “And, we appreciate USDA's concern that they are going to lose the individual ID program they've had relative to the monitoring and surveillance of tuberculosis and brucellosis.”

But, Wilson adds his committee has asked USDA — so far without an answer they find acceptable — who will be responsible for the accuracy of a database used for national herd health surveillance. Moreover, Wilson wonders, “Who is going to be responsible for making sure every time an animal changes hands that the new owner is identified. I'll be responsible for identifying the buyer I sell to, but after that, as a producer, I don't know how I track it.”

On the point of database accuracy, Healey points out, “It's not unusual today that if we are trying to locate an animal with a certain tag number, when we find that animal it's not the right one.” A number may have been transposed on one end, a tag lost and replaced on the other or a host of other manmade problems.

Suppose you either had an animal with a problem or an animal mistakenly identified as having a problem. Or, maybe a cow comes up with a problem and she's changed hands three times since you sold her, but you're still the only owner on record.

“What do we do when a tag doesn't work, a computer doesn't work or a spreadsheet within a system gets messed up?” Wilson asks. “And when we identify a problem, what's the time frame for correcting it and the status of the rest of my herd in the meantime?”

Healey says the level of liability in the event of a problem must be identified. If a hamburger from a fast-food joint makes a consumer sick with food poisoning, who's liable? Is it just the segment closest to where the problem cropped up, or is it everyone who had ownership of the cattle at some stage?

“Some claim having an ID and records system reduces liability and others claim that traceability increases it,” Healey says.

On the other side of the coin, producers who think that — in the absence of a widespread ID system — they can now hide from Uncle Sam are fooling themselves. Of the beef carcasses tracked down by USDA last year due to residue concerns, there were only 16% they couldn't find.

Incidentally, NCBA's live cattle marketing committee also has been charged with exploring the notion of liability risk management, which might include product liability insurance for producers.

Where To From Here?

Of course, all of this is just the tip of the iceberg. The industry must first agree on the type of system needed. After that come the sticky issues of developing standards for numbering systems, methods of ID, information systems, information accessibility and so on.

As mentioned earlier, even though NCBA adopted a resolution in favor of a voluntary system in 1999, it's fair to say the organization's more aggressive stance this year, following an NCBA-hosted ID symposium, was considered a dramatic shift by some. Todd says his committee plans to have standardization recommendations ready for industry consideration by next year's annual NCBA meeting or the summer session following it.

In the meantime, NCBA isn't the only group looking to help establish standards. Hammerschmidt, chairman of the NIAA animal ID and information systems, explains:

“Our strategy for the next six to nine months is to appoint an industry task force or working group on ID so we can at least identify that we collectively (across all species) support a national ID system and what segment of the industry should be established as the priority, and then develop a strategic plan.

“If we all agree that we need to have a certain level of ID, then let's identify the steps in getting there,” Hammerschmidt says.

For its part, NIAA has a decades-old record of advocating animal ID and helping the livestock industry ferret out what makes practical sense.

Both Todd and Hammerschmidt also mention the need to include a broad representation of producer, processor and vendor input to discussions. Furthermore, one would suspect that Uncle Sam himself might want to help facilitate these types of discussions.

At press time, however, presumably because President Bush's transition team isn't quite through transitioning, Uncle Sam's lips were snapped tighter than a jar of grandma's aged peach preserves.

However it evolves, even the skeptics grudgingly admit that some sort of national, voluntary system is likely to become part of the industry landscape sooner than later. As for the proponents, they're pressing hard for sooner.

“We can't wait to build this tremendously elaborate program; we don't know the practicality of it. But it's important to start with the nuts and bolts so we can build upon it,” says Hammerschmidt. “I think all the species groups have accepted the need for individual ID. Certainly, sheep is moving forward, and swine has moved quite well as far as premise ID.”

Within the dairy industry where producers are used to exploiting individual ID for day-to-day management, Hammerschmidt figures half of the ID providers have already adopted the AIN numbering system.

“I think from a broad perspective, the U.S. livestock industry needs to acknowledge what's happening in the rest of the world. Our products are competing in a global market. If we want to compete, we need to be involved in meeting the needs of international trade,” says Hammerschmidt.

Closer to home, based on his own experience, Todd believes producers are forfeiting net opportunity if they don't begin utilizing individual ID for management, with or without a standard national system in place.

“I can't wait for the next calf crop to get the next set of data,” he explains. “Every moment that passes by without individual ID, you miss the opportunity to know information about your cattle that you could never know before.

Let’s Do Country Of Origin First

Rancher Mary Burke of Cle Elum, WA, believes a national program of individual animal ID is a good idea in theory, but not unless it's done right. To Burke, that means total-life documentation of ownership, management and feeding practices, with that information being shared and accessible to everyone who had ownership of that animal during its life.

“We don't have any vehicle to do that at this time. Right now, most identification programs document just the initial owner of the calf and the processor who turned it into beef,” says the commercial cow/calf operator who serves as chairperson of the U.S./Canada border issues subcommittee to the National Cattlemen's Beef Association's animal health and cattle well being committee. “Until the industry figures out how to collect all that data accurately and get it to everyone along the chain, why should any rancher assume the liability on that calf?”

Burke feels country of origin labeling is a more immediate need for U.S. producers than individual animal ID.

“Given the fact that our health protocols are so good in the U.S., we should be more concerned about the imports than the in-country use,” she says.

Customers Demand It

The U.S. will have an individual animal ID system, says Joe Gordon. The decision has already been made by the end-users of U.S. beef products. “Customers will continue to go to their suppliers and want guarantees,” he says.

The vice president of Sparks Companies, an agricultural and commodity market research, analysis and consulting firm, says perceived value is the issue.

“Export markets are already requiring it. They want assurances, not just our word on it,” he says.

Such leverage came into play recently when packers began asking their fed cattle suppliers to certify that animal proteins had not been fed. “That type of pressure will be passed down the production chain,” he says. “Eventually, it will touch everyone.”

But, Gordon says the call for individual ID goes beyond food safety aspects. He anticipates that by 2005, 50% of all U.S. beef marketed will be sold based on some type of a consumer-driven specification.

“We need to identify the value drivers in the industry and the features and benefits of those drivers in order to better market that product at the retail and food service level,” he says.

Without such a system, Gordon feels the U.S. beef industry's competitive chances will be greatly hampered. “The size of an industry doesn't determine its sustainability. We'll get smaller, if we don't do it.”

The cost, he allows, will be high. “But cost isn't a good excuse not to do it. Other industries faced similar challenges and they've been able to do it,” he says.

Do We Have A Choice?

Marcine Moldenhauer believes the long-term viability of the beef industry hinges on having an individual animal ID system. Moldenhauer oversees value-added procurement for Excel, a wholly owned subsidiary of Cargill.

That said, she advocates such a system be voluntary.

Like other proponents of ID, Moldenhauer sees individual animal ID as an avenue to share information to improve beef, instead of being viewed by producers as traceback.

“If producers are abiding by best management practices that are endorsed by the industry, they should be proud of what they have produced and willing to stand behind it,” she says.

Another benefit: a national ID system is a way to keep the doors open on market access both at home and abroad, Moldenhauer points out.

“National animal ID would give the U.S. beef industry a united front toward food safety, herd health and being pro-active toward improving,” Moldenhauer says.

But from a packer perspective, can every animal be followed from conception to consumer? She says, “We may not have a choice.”

“We already have the ability to read electronic ID tags. Now the challenge is to marry the information all together at the packer, feeder and producer levels.”

“It's going to cost everybody,” she adds. “Especially in the beginning until there's adequate volume and it is a daily routine — instead of a once-a-week occurrence that's disruptive to business.

“I think producers should expect to pay $6-15/head depending on the data they want collected, the services provided by feedyards and packer, and any data analysis they want,” Moldenhauer says. “For now, producers can decide for themselves the cost versus benefit of collecting and using all of this data.”


The Liability Question

By Jane Easter Bahls

A national cattle ID system is more likely to decrease your liability than increase it.

A national cattle ID system is making sense to more producers as they learn about the management value of individual data, the likelihood of better prices for those who offer trace-back and the potential value in world trade. Yet, there's this nagging suspicion about liability. What if children start getting sick from tainted beef, and they can trace it back to my operation?

“This is a real key issue for a lot of people — probably determinative,” says attorney Clark Willingham of Mosely & Standerfer LLP in Dallas, TX, and a former president of the National Cattlemen's Beef Association (NCBA). “With accountability comes trace-back, and that scares a lot of people.”

But a look at the legal principles involved shows that the system is more likely to get producers off the liability hook, especially those who are conscientious in their management practices.

“The point of cattle ID is that for those who are careful, their liability will go down,” Willingham says. “If you aren't careful, if you're doing poor management, your liability will go up — and it should. It's a matter of consumer protection.”

Perry Glantz, an attorney with Holland & Hart in Denver, CO, who researched the issue for NCBA, explains that the basic legal principle is product liability. When people sell defective products, they're subject to liability if people are harmed by the defect.

In the food industry, a defective product means an ingredient was in the food that a reasonable consumer would not expect it to contain. So a restaurant or packing plant might be held liable if a customer gets deathly ill from E. coli bacteria in beef, but not if the problem was that the customer happened to be allergic to beef.

“The key element of this legal doctrine is the requirement that the plaintiff establish that the defendant caused the harm at issue in the case,” Glantz says. If so, then the people responsible can be held liable whether or not they intended to cause the harm and whether or not they were negligent in some way. This doctrine is called “strict liability.”

But, if a third party alters the product in between the defendant and the plaintiff and caused the harm, then the defendant would be off the hook. In the case of meat contaminated with E.coli bacteria during the grinding process, even if the meat can be traced back to the ranch, the producer would not be liable because the animal was sold without E. coli in the muscle.

Glantz says the most likely scenario involving liability over cattle would be drug residues in meat caused by improper withdrawal periods. If harm results, the court might rule that the producer is liable. That's when a cattle ID system would enable the plaintiff's attorney to figure out exactly who mismanaged those cattle.

“At the same time, the ability to identify the particular animal would shield all other producers who sent their animals to the same lot from being unnecessarily included in a lawsuit,” Glantz says. A cattle ID system would enable those producers to prove their animals didn't cause the problem.

“The point is that good identification, rather than being a hook for liability, is actually a defense against liability,” says attorney and rancher Wythe Willey in Cedar Rapids, IA, and NCBA's president-elect.

Willey recalls a time in his youth when tuberculosis (TB) turned up at a Chicago stockyard where his father had sent cattle. “We spent the better part of a month testing cattle for TB,” he says. An individual ID system would have quickly reassured them that it wasn't their problem.

Don't expect to see a rash of lawsuits against ranchers and feedlot owners over bad meat. In fact, a review of bad meat cases didn't turn up even one where the rancher was dragged into the lawsuit.

“While it's possible for a plaintiff to attempt to bring everyone in the stream of commerce into the action, as a practical matter, it's not worth it,” Glantz says. “The plaintiffs can recover for all their injuries from the store or restaurant that they dealt with directly.”

But should there ever be such a lawsuit, producers who follow the right procedures and can identify their own cattle will have a strong defense.

“If they can find a bad actor,” Willingham says, “that takes the taint off the rest of us and puts the blame where it ought to be.”

Jane Easter Bahls is a writer on agricultural legal issues and is based in Bexley, OH.