The discussion no longer was about the prospect of creating value through improved information flow that would allow producers to improve their marketing and production by better responding to consumer needs. It was no longer about improving production efficiency or the quality of the product through improved genetics and management.

Mandatory ID is now just as much about ensuring the health of the cattle herd and the economic health of ranchers. It's about disease control and eradication, and dealing with bio-security threats.

At the same time, animal ID (source-, process- and genetic-verified cattle) has become an issue of market access. Most experts agree that traceability will soon become a requirement of the marketplace. Speed of implementation has also become an issue as the U.S. trails many countries in having a workable system in place.

These pressures also have put the government into the animal ID debate in a big way. APHIS has been very clear it wants a multi-specie animal ID system. As a result, the National Institute for Animal Agriculture, along with the U.S. Animal Health Association, has been actively involved in the process of creating guidelines.

The complexity of tracking an animal through the production system is well known. The multi-specie aspect only adds to the difficulty.

As a result of these frustrations, the most unlikely of bedfellows announced last week an alliance that would create the Beef Information Exchange (BIE). Formed with the purpose of creating a platform upon which information can be exchanged, BIE is a coalition of five companies competing in the animal ID and information networking marketplace. It includes AgInfoLink, APEIS, eMerge Interactive, IMI Global and Micro Beef Technologies. All these companies have been active participants in USDA's National Identification Developmental team.

At the most fundamental level, this alliance is a giant step forward for the industry. Implementation of these companies' systems has thus far been limited by producer fear about purchasing another "Betamax-style" machine. Betamax, you might recall, was a video technology superior to VHS. But, when VHS became the industry standard, those who owned a Betamax found themselves unable to utilize the technology.

A shared platform where information can be exchanged is crucial. Such a shared platform would allow a cow-calf producer using one system to link and exchange information with a feed yard operating on a different product line, and both would be able to work with a packer using another, etc. A set of industry standards allows fiercely competitive companies to compete openly, yet assures all of them access.

This alliance also sends a clear message on two points. First, that the millions of dollars and years of time invested by these companies should be utilized. And secondly, that the government needn't create a system from scratch, but incorporate already existing programs. The BIE alliance also minimizes the need for one national database and the specter of "Big Brother" in the cattle business.

It would be a mistake, however, to view the alliance as pure altruism. These companies have a vested interest in helping design the system to ensure they maintain their competitive advantage in the marketplace.

The take-home message is that the industry must avoid turning over the creation of a national ID system to either the government or the private sector. Rather, the industry must take an active leadership role in defining the standards and platforms that will exist, while letting the free market and private companies compete freely within that context.

A multi-species framework that fails to fully understand the complexities and intricacies of the beef industry would be disastrous. So would a government-mandated monstrosity that makes implementation difficult if not cost prohibitive. But, a system created by an alliance of suppliers with the aim of controlling access to the marketplace is not the correct approach, either.

The key is rapidly developing a framework within which the system can function efficiently, with rules that are flexible enough to allow everybody to participate.