A national, standardized, mandatory animal identification (ID) system looks to be a sure thing in light of the recent bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) case. Such a program ultimately will come at a cost, but it could also provide revenue opportunity.

As a result, pushing to get a system as soon as possible, but one that makes the most sense from a producer standpoint, may be the most economically influential decision you could help make this year.

Unfortunately, there is plenty of confusion to muck through, much of it revolving around the apparent lack of industry and government understanding about the difference between a national ID system and the components required of one.

For instance, there are numerous animal ID tag manufacturers, vendors and data management service providers. Some offer all those services. These are components of a system, not a national ID system.

There's even the recently announced Beef Information Exchange (BIE). It represents a collection of companies that have taken it upon themselves to figure out how to make sure their individual radio-frequency ID (RFID) technologies and data platforms can communicate with the competitors in the BIE group. This way, the BIE partners reason, producers can choose their own vendors but still be able to comply with a national animal ID system.

ID System Components

Ideally, producers will be able to select from a number of manufacturers and vendors, yet have the data required of a national system transmitted to wherever USDA decides that data needs to go and when. Though, commendable and needed, this too is a component, not a national ID system.

There are other hardware and software manufacturers offering other electronic ID solutions. These also offer producers the opportunity to identify individual animals and track their movement. But, these don't constitute a national ID system, either.

Recently, I learned about a new software product that supposedly can be added to any of these data management systems and offers producers an entirely separate level of data protection. It's not a national animal ID system, either.

There's even a member-owned organization that seeks to serve as a general contractor for its members. It would pay them to utilize animal ID technologies provided by companies like those discussed above. They aren't a national ID system.

What Is A National ID System?

A national ID system is something like the U.S. Animal Identification Plan (USAIP). It was developed specifically over the course of the past two years. It was built upon a foundation laid by multiple species across more years before that.

USDA and all major livestock species helped craft the plan. It outlines how all livestock can be identified individually, then tracked from the time they enter commerce for the purpose of monitoring the health of this nation's livestock industry.

More specifically, this plan fairly well dictates that RFID will be the technology of choice, at least inititally. The goal of the USAIP is to be able to trace an animal for animal health purposes to all of the places the animal existed previously, to find the other animals that could have come into contact with the suspect, etc., all within 48 hours. Contrast that with the fact that after six weeks, there were still some 50-odd head the USDA couldn't find as part of its BSE investigation.

All the other components mentioned here must fit a standardized system like USAIP. It's not the other way around.

The National Cattlemen's Beef Association (NCBA) recently pledged its support to USAIP and urged government to do the same for producers. Problem is, ever since Congress reconvened in January, a slew of animal ID bills have resulted.

While the interest and enthusiasm of these legislators are appreciated, none of these bills represent a national animal ID system that's the product of as much time, effort and input from a cross-section of livestock industries as USAIP is.

Support For USAIP

Gary Wilson urged NCBA members at the organization's annual membership meeting in January to take action on ID or accept what government hands them. He's a cow-calf producer who is also a member of the USAIP Steering Committee.

“If you don't want 50 different ID plans in this country, go home and call your governor, your senator, your representative or your local government official and encourage them to support the USAIP plan,” he said.

Amen. But, first, understand what a national animal ID system is, as opposed to the components such a system requires, as opposed to broader food safety systems that incorporate and comply with such an ID system. Then, get on the horn and tell your congressman you don't want just any animal national ID system.

If it's supposed to be national in scope, based on common sense and the input of cattle producers, while also accommodating the unique needs of the other species, tell them you want the USAIP as your system. Tell them within that system you want more opportunity, rather than less, to choose the specific components you'll use. In other words, make sure they understand the difference between a system and the components employed by a system. Let them know you want a national system that gives you latitude to choose which approved components — such as tags, data management services, etc. — to use in complying with it.

Tell them you're part of an industry that's worked on this for years, before BSE was discovered here or in Canada.

Wes Ishmael also serves as vice president of communications for VeriPrime, (www.veriprime.com) a member-owned and directed food assurance organization.