Expect a mandatory national animal identification system for the U.S. livestock industry within next three years.

No doubt, John Wiemers got the full attention of the livestock industry when he started the countdown on mandatory national animal identification (ID) system. While Wiemers, national animal identification director for USDA/APHIS, recently gave industry leaders a three-year notice, he says the intent is not to burden cattle producers with more regulations.

"The word mandatory raises a lot of red flags," he says. "The message I'd like to give is that within three to four years, the livestock industry - especially the cattle industry - will face a crisis in identification unless they do something about it. This is a heads up."

The national system will be required for animals that are involved in interstate commerce. This includes cattle, sheep, goats, swine, horses and captive cervids such as deer and elk, as well as poultry. In most cases, it does not include pets.

In a way, the crisis is due to a job done well. With brucellosis eradication in sight, the trademark metal ear clips that are attached to animals vaccinated against brucellosis are getting to be rare. In turn, the ID that came with these tags is also becoming a thing of the past.

"As the states become free of the disease, testing on breeding age animals will also no longer be required at livestock markets," explains Wiemers. "And, neither will the identification ear tags that are applied to tested animals."

In a few years, the overall level of ID in cattle can be expected to fall from a high of 90% to 10%. It did in Canada following successful eradication of brucellosis in that country.

"Without replacing that testing and identification system, the industry is vulnerable to many threats such as foreign animal disease outbreaks, impaired surveillance for eradicated diseases, inadequate monitoring for new and emerging diseases and technical barriers to global trade," he says.

He also says other agencies, particularly the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), require traceback capabilities for antibiotic residues. He adds that international trade will also be an issue.

Even so, the idea of a national ID system, particularly a mandatory one, does raise concerns with certain producer groups. Bucky Gwartney, director of research and technical services for the National Cattlemen's Beef Association (NCBA), says NCBA supports a voluntary system as long as it is cost-appropriate, answers the right questions, is efficient and is not over-burdening.

He adds that the voluntary system should be flexible enough to meet the needs of individual producers.

"That could be better management on their operations, obtaining carcass information, or providing traceback/source identification needs," says Gwartney. "We do not support a mandatory system. Obviously, that would be government-driven, and NCBA likes as little government intervention as possible. Cattle producers have been very good at fixing what needs to be fixed on their own."

Gwartney says a mandatory system would have a huge infrastructure and be very difficult to implement. It also doesn't guarantee food safety.

Wiemers answers that the system doesn't need to be complicated. "Our basic need is as simple as replacing the calfhood identification system with one that simply identifies the animals before they leave the farm."

Cost and liability are two other concerns. On the cost issue, Wiemers says the expenses have to be weighed against the benefits. "Many beef alliances and beef quality assurance programs have very expensive systems in place because of the benefits. These are driven by economics."

As for liability, Wiemers says it's a legitimate concern, especially if a problem over which a producer has no control is identified.

"However, particularly in a case of antibiotic residue in an animal that has been through many owners, ID provides the best defense," he says. "If a producer has a good record system, the use of antibiotics is documented."

The USDA official also says the three- to four-year warning should help head off problems. "We are giving the industry a chance to come up with systems that meet their needs as well as government needs."