Don't expect the government to strong-arm the beef cattle industry into accepting a mandatory national identification (ID) system. But count on USDA to continue encouraging the industry to partner with it in designing and implementing a standardized program within two years.

“Do you want me to follow the disease or get ahead of it?” USDA's John Clifford recently asked the international, multi-species representatives gathered for the National Food Animal Identification Symposium. “If you want me to get ahead of it, then I need real-time data,” he says.

Currently, the U.S. has no national cattle ID program. The closest thing to it would be a de facto program such as the brucellosis eradication program that is coming to a close, Clifford says.

But he adds, “If we have an outbreak of a disease like foot-and-mouth, I can't guarantee that I can trace it, or if I can, how quickly. We need real-time traceability, or we (the U.S.) will continue to be vulnerable and at risk.”

An outbreak of a virulent, market-smashing disease like foot-and-mouth disease (FMD) is what's often talked about, says Gary Wilson, chairman of the Animal Health Committee for the National Cattlemen's Beef Association (NCBA). But when it comes to beef cattle, Wilson says that over the long-haul at least, it's really the breeding herd that's at highest risk and in most need of ID.

Moreover, Wilson and others emphasize that ID does nothing to prevent disease. It just allows timely, effective disease surveillance and herd health monitoring that could help mitigate the consequences of a catastrophic outbreak of a foreign animal disease. It also could pull up the slack for re-emerging domestic diseases such as bovine tuberculosis.

NCBA drew a new line in the sand of regulatory acceptance this year when members separated the ID needs of animal health monitoring from those associated with production management. NCBA voted to accept mandatory ID for health monitoring purposes but stood pat on its conviction that any ID system incorporating production information should be market-driven and voluntary.

All told, both urgency and casual consensus appear to be running higher than ever before across livestock species and between government, producer groups and private industry. Few disagree there's an immediate need for a standardized national ID system, at least for the purposes of disease surveillance and herd health monitoring. And also to stem the growing number of traceback-based trade barriers other countries continue to mount against U.S. meat exports. Most involved say they and their respective producers are willing to accept a mandatory system if that's what it takes for this purpose.

In fact, frustration is increasing among some producers who can't understand why getting a system in place is taking so long.

What kind of system and whether such a system should be voluntary or mandatory continue to be among the most vexing questions. Plus, the ID debate so far has been a classic example of plenty of Indians but too few chiefs. No single entity has ever really been in charge of coming up with a game plan and building consensus across diverse species and their producers.

Bull By The Horns

In essence, that's the evolutionary role that the National Food Animal Identification Task Force finds itself in. Established by the National Institute for Animal Agriculture (NIAA), the task force includes representatives from all the key players that need to agree.

Through working groups representing each species, key producer groups, private industry and government — along with public input — this task force is drafting recommendations for a national system that will be submitted to the U.S. Animal Health Association (USAHA) in October. USAHA advises USDA in matters pertaining to livestock health and disease.

If USAHA accepts the recommendations, the task force hopes USDA will adopt a national plan by the end of 2002 and implement it within two years.

Possible Recommendations For The Plan:

  • Species-specific premise and/or individual animal ID with a standardized numbering system that enables trace-back to animals within 48 hours; market driven, but mandatory if need be.

  • A secure central database, or multiple ones networked together, housing basic animal ID, origin and movement information, accessible by government for the purpose of health monitoring and disease surveillance, but inaccessible for other purposes.

  • Government endorsement that would make for a system recognized as valid by international trading partners.

  • Producer-friendly in terms of use and compliance, and paid for by those who derive benefit (likely a combination of public funds and producer fees).