In its most simple form, animal identification (ID) became necessary as soon as humans domesticated the first cattle, sheep or goat. And, like any other venture that endures, develops and grows, the system evolved to meet new conditions and needs.

Somewhere along the line, the need for something more verifiable than one man's word or memory against that of another necessitated the adoption of more permanent methods of animal ID. Depictions found by archaeologists of ancient Egyptians using hot-iron brands attest to that contention.

Later, as the scientific method developed and various performance measures demonstrated the production differences between individual animals, livestock owners strived to further differentiate livestock. Ear notching, tattoos, tagging, etc., were some of the resulting technologies adopted to further differentiate animals by age, parentage, individual performance traits, etc.

Today, the livestock and meat trade is much different than even 20 years ago. Modern transportation whisks humans, animals and products across countries or the world in a matter of minutes or hours. Where 20 or 30 years ago, foreign trade in livestock and meat was barely a blip in annual market tabulations, today it makes up a growing chunk of the industry's annual take.

Those foreign dollars bring with them dangers and responsibilities. That lucrative potential has prompted livestock industries to work to meet the specific demands of foreign customers in terms of quality, price and value.

Increasingly, what those foreign customers — and domestic customers, as well — are demanding is a greater assurance of food safety. Who can blame them, particularly after the recent sensational outbreaks in Europe and other countries of bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), as well as and foot-and-mouth disease (FMD)?

What those outbreaks also illustrated was the overnight economic devastation such outbreaks can bring to an affected nations' livestock industry.

Until last spring, the U.S. and Canada, the world's dominant producers and purveyors of high-quality beef, were untouched by those outbreaks. Protected on their coasts by oceans, the two countries were both vigilant and proud of the effectiveness of their animal disease surveillance programs.

But on May 20, Canada announced it had confirmed a case of BSE in a single Alberta cow. That single case devastated Canada's beef industry. Stripped of its access to world markets for cattle and beef products, the impact on the Canadian economy is estimated to be $2.5 billion thus far.

The slamming of foreign market doors all over the world to exports of live cattle and beef products from Canada was one factor that contributed to the extraordinary run of prices for all classes of cattle in the U.S. this summer and fall. The episode also served to fan a sense of urgency in the U.S. to develop a national livestock ID and traceback system.

Anxiety in the U.S. spiked this summer when Japan — traditionally, the top destination for exports of high-quality U.S. beef — announced it would close its borders to U.S. beef imports if the U.S. couldn't verify the product wasn't of Canadian origin. Perhaps it was a market protection play, but Japan, still smarting from the effects of its own BSE nightmare that began in fall 2001, claimed it wanted to protect its domestic industry against re-infection, as well as calm an anxious Japanese public.

ID Effort Was Underway

Actually, motions to develop an underpinning for a national livestock ID system in the U.S. were underway in earnest before the discovery of BSE in Canada. Talked about for years, in early 2002, the National Institute for Animal Agriculture (NIAA), a national forum for building consensus and advancing solutions for animal agriculture, organized a task force of approximately 70 representatives from more than 30 stakeholder groups to research the issue.

That task force produced a National Identification Work Plan, which it presented in October 2002 to the U.S. Animal Health Association (USAHA), a key advising group to government. USAHA accepted the plan with a resolution that called for Veterinary Services (VS) in USDA's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) to establish a U.S. National Animal Identification Development (USAID) team. Its charge was to develop a national plan using the work plan as a guide.

That team was comprised of various committees and scores of livestock industry folks representing a cross-section of producers, producer groups, animal health care providers, state and federal government officials, etc. The team delivered its recommendations for a mandatory national plan to USAHA in October 2003. The recommendations, accepted by USAHA, set the following timetable:

  • Premises ID on all U.S. cattle by July 1, 2004. This would require standardized premises ID numbers be established for all livestock operations, market facilities, assembly points, exhibitions and processing plants. “Livestock” includes bison, beef and dairy cattle, swine, sheep, goats, camelids (alpacas and llamas), horses, cervids (deer and elk), eight species of poultry and 11 species of animals raised in aquaculture.

  • All animals moving in interstate commerce to be identified with official USAID individual or group/lot numbers by July 1, 2005, and with interstate movement of all cattle, swine and small ruminants reported to the official database.

  • All animals moving within intrastate commerce must be identified with official USAID individual or group/lot numbers by July 1, 2006, with intrastate movement reported to the official database.

These recommendations for a mandatory national livestock ID program were put forth with the sole purpose of disease surveillance. Such a system is needed, USAID team members said, in order to enable traceback of animals suspected of carrying a foreign animal disease, and all their previous production locations, within 48 hours of the discovery of the disease.

Much remains to be done to move from these recommendations to a reality where every head of U.S. livestock is identifiable and traceable within 48 hours. One big question is who will pay for it? Another is who or which entities will have access to the information?

Other Potential Benefits

While the purpose of the ID work plan recommendations is solely to build a quicker response time to animal disease outbreaks, such a system would also pay dividends to the livestock industry, and the economy as a whole. It would help provide greater food safety assurance both domestically and in foreign export, and allow continued global market access for U.S. cattle and beef products

But, there are other potential benefits, as well. For one, such a program of individual animal ID could provide the foundation on which individual producers can add capabilities to collect individual animal performance data on their cattle. Such information could help producers better define, document and market the assets — either in performance or management protocols — of individual cattle.