In the January issue ("Identification, Please," page 46), BEEF profiled the elements of a national cattle identification system and the programs other countries are putting into place. This month, we report on the U.S. beef industry's program.

Tracing an animal from calf to consumer may provide the information necessary to regain beef's market share. That's the hope of National Cattlemen's Beef Association (NCBA) members who recently supported a proposal to implement a National Cattle Identification (NCID) system for America's cattle producers, feeders and processors.

The approval to develop a system that will individually identify animals from gate to plate came at the NCBA convention in Charlotte, NC.

"We cannot regain market share without the ability to improve our product," Montana producer Jimme Wilson says. "If we can't measure our product, we can't improve it."

Wilson is chairman of the NCBA's Value-Based Marketing Task Force that recommended the NCID system.

"We must focus on animal identification because without the ability to measure cattle we can't have a value-based marketing program," Wilson says. "We keep coming back to value-based marketing. That's what is going to drive regaining market share."

Wilson says value-based marketing is also important for reducing packer concentration. "If you know the value of your cattle through value-based marketing, there is going to be some transparency brought into the industry," he says.

The proposed NCID system will be voluntary and producer driven. The primary purpose is to facilitate the transfer of data through the beef system, according to Wilson.

"This will be open to everyone at whatever level they want to be involved," says Wilson. "If you want to do it for 10 head or large groups of cattle, it'll be flexible."

To enhance the quality and consistency of beef products, the traceback system will:

--- Facilitate transfer of carcass data to the producer,

--- Enhance seedstock and cow/calf producers opportunity to make genetic and management decisions, and

--- Assist feeders in marketing cattle to better fit market end-points.

A secondary benefit of the NCID system will be source verification.

"Although this is not our primary goal, it certainly is a function that this system will provide," says Wilson.

If we're going to continue to attract the export market, source verification will become increasingly important, Wilson says. In some countries, it's getting more important to trace products to producers, he adds. Including an ISO number will allow cattle to be tracked all over the world.

The Question Of Liability While tracing an animal through the beef chain can offer useful information, some producers are expressing concern over increased threat of liability. However, Wythe Willey, a commercial cattle producer and attorney from Cedar Rapids, IA, says an ID system should protect producers.

"Your liability could be substantially decreased if you can prove the proper management things have been done. As opposed to if you could not," says Willey.

For liability to be established, the question is when did the defective item get introduced to the meat? If it was at the packer level, liability can't go back to the producer, Willey says.

The Next Step Funding for the NCID system is yet to be determined. That will be decided by an NCID board consisting of representatives from throughout the industry.

Current options include having the person that applies the ID tag bear the cost of the tag, with each participant that routinely submits and accesses information responsible for paying an annual fee for management of a central NCID database. A second option would be based on a per-head fee. For each request of an animal's information, a charge would be assessed.

The electronically accessible database will only be accessible to partners involved in production of the cattle. Data will be provided to the government only under specific circumstances such as a disease outbreak.

Once the board is appointed, final decisions will be made regarding what ID technology will be used to track cattle through the beef chain. Currently, most interest is in an RFID (radio frequency identification) technology with universal reading capabilities.

At this stage there is no specific tag, therefore it's difficult to indicate cost, says NCBA Director of Quality Jim Gibb. Cost will depend on whether a tag, implant or other technology is used, he says.

Wilson is excited for the industry to pursue the NCID system and believes it will be a success. "We're looking at 30 million cattle in five years," Wilson says. But the system will most likely remain voluntary. Another resolution passed at the NCBA convention stressed that the NCID system be voluntary and never become permanent.

While the U.S. is in the early stages of developing a national cattle identification (NCID) system, Canadian producers already have voluntary trials underway to develop their ID system.

And, although both countries plan to track animal information from calf to the consumer, their reasons for collecting that data are different. In the U.S., the focus is information sharing. In Canada, the goal is source verification, with information sharing a secondary benefit.

"Our system is being developed strictly for health and safety," says Julie Stitt, of the Canadian Cattle Identification Agency (CCIA) formed last March. "We hope to never have to activate this system, but feel we need to have a risk management program in place."

The reason for the traceback system is to increase consumer confidence in Canada's beef quality and safety at both the domestic and international level, says Stitt.

"We are export dependent and we must remain competitive," Stitt says. CCIA estimates if Canadian borders closed, their beef industry would lose $2 billion annually.

She says since the BSE outbreak in England, Canada is seeing pressure from countries importing beef for a traceback system. "We've had Asians come over and ask 'What's your traceback for food safety?' "

How Will Canada's Program Work? The proposed Canadian ID program will consist of a basic eartag that goes on at the producer level. The tag will have a visible, unique number, the country code and a bar code. CCIA hopes the basic tag will be substantially under $1 each. Electronic tags will be offered as anoption for producers who are willing to pay more for tags.

"Cattle must be tagged when they leave the herd. That's the basic minimum requirement for producers, and the packer ultimately has to read it," says Stitt. "Producers don't have to record anything, but we hope they would use it for more."

Stitt says, "For this to be accepted and market neutral, it must be practical, reliable and affordable."

Canada is currently testing 20 types of tags in 80 herds, totaling 30,000 tags in the field. The voluntary trials will be completed in 1999. Stitt says the hope is to have a traceback system implemented by 2000.

"We are starting with a very simple, practical system, and hopefully we can demonstrate it works," says Stitt. "Ultimately, it will probably be mandatory."