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HUNTIN' DAYLIGHT - EVERYTHING VENTURED, NOTHING GAINED

by: Wes Ishmael

Argue long enough and some arguments take care of themselves. For instance, while proponents and nay Sayers of a standardized national individual animal identification system have been swapping notions about the relative merits and pitfalls of national ID, beef industry customers are taking action that may necessitate adoption of such a system if producers want to keep selling them product.

Here's the deal: By the first part of March, as the global media plastered front pages and TV screens around the world with wonderments about BSE, then Foot and Mouth Disease, some penny ante beef customers like McDonald's Corporation demanded their beef suppliers start certifying that the product they were buying had never been fed mammalian protein, a practice banned by the Food and Drug Administration in 1997 and a practice that some pseudo-scientists claim is responsible for transmitting BSE in Europe, although it has never been proven.

Certainly, this new demand had plenty to do with the accidental feeding of a ration containing mammalian product to a group of feeder cattle in Texas. The inadvertent mistake was discovered immediately and the cattle in question destroyed but the media had a field day.

So, in an effort to keep selling their product, some of this nation's tiny little beef processors like IBP, ConAgra and Excel started demanding that the feed yards selling them cattle certify that those cattle had never been fed mammalian protein.

Next and fast, as is usually the case in a world of trickle-down responsibility, many of this nation's feeders started demanding that the folks supplying them with cattle certify the cattle they were sending had never been fed mammalian protein or any other banned substance for that matter.

In fact, by March 1, the Livestock Marketing Association had issued a memo to its members—many of them auction markets—providing suggestions on how to certify the cattle moving through their markets. Basically, it boils down to the person selling the cattle putting his or her name on the dotted line to that effect.

Ultimately and understandably, everyone passes the liability on down the line because no one wants to assume liability for a product they couldn't control before it ended up in their sale ring, or stocker pasture or feed yard or packing plant.

Full Circle Incentive

Ironically, assuming responsibility for a product they've relinquished control in is precisely the argument used by some of the most ardent opponents of a national standardized individual animal identification system. The argument goes like this: If an animal ends up causing a problem, e-coli in a hamburger, let's say, and you can trace the product back to my ranch, why should I assume responsibility for it when I sold it at weaning time and had no control over what happened to it after that?

On the surface at least, this argument makes plenty of common sense. Even when you consider the fact that without a standardized national identification system USDA can already track individual animals back to the ranch of origin with an amazing degree of accuracy. As an example, according to USDA, of the beef carcasses it went hunting for last year due to questions about residue levels, there were only 16 percent they couldn't track.

But, this reality, in light of the certification now being demanded by folks beyond the pasture, may actually provide producers with added incentive to establish a national ID system. In this case, what if one head of the 16 percent USDA couldn't track was creating a national and international media nightmare costing the entire U.S. beef industry literally millions of dollars every day? Worse, what if folks traced a problem back to you based on circumstantial evidence and you couldn't prove that the animal in question didn't come from your place, or couldn't prove that even though it did originate on your ranch it didn't have a problem when it left, based on your ID-sorted management records?

Just before all of these customer certification demands started hitting the street, the National Cattlemen's Beef Association (NCBA) hosted what some producers considered a watershed event. Their National Animal ID Symposium in February attracted a packed house crowd, including some of the industry's biggest players, everyone from producers, to packers, to animal ID vendors.

At that time, Lemmy Wilson, NCBA chairman of the live animal marketing committee explained, “Individual animal identification continues to be a growing issue within the cattle and beef industry. And, it is critical that we, as the industry leadership, get ahead of the curve and control our own destiny.”

Unfortunately, recent events since that time seem to indicate that the curve has leap-frogged in front of the industry.

Taking an Engine by the Horns

The good news is that even once a train has left the station the conductor still has some say over its destination.

In the case of a national ID system, producers can still direct the charge on what such a system should include and how it would be implemented. After all, even though customer demands have likely accelerated the move to such a system, the economic reasons served up in its defense previously are no less pressing now.

Specifically, individual identity is the requisite admission to the increased efficiency made possible by the management of individual animals rather than groups, a management model that hasn't even learned to crawl within the industry yet.

Put it this way, John Todd, manager of Florida-based Rollins Ranches, one of the largest cow/calf operations in the United States says that individual ID—every bull, cow and calf walking in their pastures—has enabled them to milk substantially more dollars from the cow herd each year because they can sort and manage their cattle with more precision.

Further from home, an individual ID system that makes source and process verification systems easier to establish and maintain, may end up being the price of admission for continued US beef exports which already account for 12 percent of all of the beef production in this country. According to officials at the U.S. Meat Export Federation, some long-standing export customers have already been asking for a certification program that the U.S. so far is unable to provide.

Of course, before considering the economic upside, just think about the downside protection. As an example, while an individual ID system can do nothing to prevent animal disease, it could help mitigate the impact of animal disease by being able to track cattle faster and more accurately, especially as this nation's defacto national ID program—Brucellosis eradication—comes to a close and the threat of Foot and Mouth Devastation is on everyone's mind.

So, Where's it At?

With all of this in mind, organizations like NCBA and the National Institute for Animal Agriculture are moving forward, facilitating discussions and trying to uncover some consensus on what components a voluntary, national, standardized ID system ought to include.

For example, is the system merely having every animal wearing a tag, or is it that plus an information highway that allows those animals to be easily tracked from location to location with performance information added at each stop? Or is it something in between?

For that matter, what numbering system is to be used? At the close of the Clinton Administration, USDA had proposed a 12-character alphanumeric system that would enable every head of every species in this nation to be labeled with a unique, non-duplicable number—kind of like a Social Security number. Some of the folks in the dairy industry, like Holstein USA, are already using that particular numbering system. But, all of that appears up in the air until the new team in D.C. has all their folks in place.

Keep in mind, while many of the coordinated ID systems sharing information between industry segments today utilize electronic identification, when it comes to a national system, electronic ID is not in and of itself an ID system, merely an ID method that can be part of a system.

Especially when it comes to identifying the cow herd in this country—not all of the market animals—but the cow herd for disease surveillance, it seems likely that Uncle Sam will push for at least a voluntary system. Although USDA had softened its threats of imposing a mandatory ID system within three years, by the close of last year, if the industry can't agree on a voluntary system soon, don't be surprised if the “M” word doesn't crop up again.

Bottom line, like it or not, with or without a standardized national identification system, the major players buying beef product are demanding producers certify the healthful management of the product. So, the risk of producer liability is there. When will producers demand an ID system that enables them to manage the risk?

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