Plenty of folks wish beef trade with Japan could resume by means of age verification on the packinghouse rail. Such a method would decrease the cost required by additional carcass sorting and segregation that would be necessary to maintain the identity of Japan-eligible carcasses.

Unfortunately, the accuracy of determining carcass age via physiological characteristics means records will likely be key to sustaining trade with Japan and others.

For perspective, when USDA announced the long-awaited Japanese agreement for beef trade resumption in October, two methods were served up for ensuring that only beef carcasses from cattle 20 months of age or younger at harvest would be sent to Japan. They were animal records and physiological grading of the carcass by USDA personnel.

Assigning carcasses to a maturity group — A to E, with A correlating to steer and heifer carcasses 30 months of age and younger — based upon physiological characteristics is nothing new for USDA. Such a system has been in place since USDA developed voluntary meat grading standards in 1926.

Maturity classification is used primarily to ensure the quality grades — age is a component of the quality-grade equation — are accurate. Carcasses from steers and heifers receive no quality-grading discount as long as they're 30 months of age or younger. In part, that's gauged by the percentage of ossification of cartilage on tips of the chine (spine) bones and by lean-tissue color.

Narrow this window to 20 months of age, though, and many meat science experts say the error rate associated with age classification could be 30%. This error comes from both directions — gauging cattle older than 20 months as younger, or disqualifying eligible cattle that grade out as being older.

Everything from nutrition, to implanting strategy, to weather, to handling and on and on, can influence the appearance of maturity. That's despite how it should look at a given chronological age.

So, Japanese acceptance of age verification based upon skeletal and lean tissue maturity grades will likely boil down to that nation's level of risk tolerance.

Folks involved in the USDA-Japan study — called for by the trade agreement — have been understandably tight-lipped until its conclusion. The study seeks to determine how well USDA's current maturity grading system correlates to actual chronological age.

Julie Quick, with USDA's Agricultural Marketing Service public affairs office, says animals with known birth dates are being used in the study. She emphasizes, “This physiological maturity study is being conducted together with Japanese experts.”

Even if the study yields an error rate acceptable to the Japanese, records verifying age will probably be required eventually. For instance, packers and feeders alike will find it difficult to accept discounts and lost opportunities due to carcasses that fit the age window based on actual age but are tossed out by the maturity classification system.

According to USDA, eligible production records indicating animal birth date will include: individual animal records, insemination records, group age verification plans, and records from existing USDA-certified special programs.

Combine that with the fact the National Animal Identification System (NAIS) and the data collected by it, even when fully implemented, can't be used for tracking cattle or cattle attributes for reasons other than animal health surveillance. That means producers need to think now about how to identify their calves this spring and attach one of the aforementioned eligible age-related production records.

Incidentally, USDA has issued an interim rule enabling cattle producers to begin tagging individual animals in compliance with NAIS requirements. This rule sets the standards for official NAIS animal identification numbers (AIN) — 15-digit numbers, with the first three being the country code (840 for the U.S.).

AINs should be available to AIN distributors by mid 2005. Once available, AIN numbers will be issued only to operations with NAIS-registered premises (currently underway in most states). Until then, the interim rule allows producers already using tags with certain versions of the Animal Numbering System — specifically those that begin with “USA” or with a manufacturer code issued by the International Committee on Animal Recording — to be grandfathered into NAIS.

Certainly, the same urgency was suggested when the requirements of a mandatory country-of-origin-labeling (COOL) program were looming. But, the difference this time is packers have a compelling economic reason to determine source on cattle, along with their age.

In fact, various packer programs are reportedly paying $2-$8/head premiums to feedlots for source verification, alone. Packers paying the premium are presumably receiving more than that from their customers.

In other words, while not yet widespread, at least some customers are already paying for source verification. And the Japanese say they will pay for age verification, which will ultimately depend upon source verification.

Safe money says the market will ultimately force folks without such verification to accept discounts as the market discovers a value for it. That value will decline with supply growth, so the greatest premiums will go to early adopters.