The sky isn't falling, thankfully, but genuine reality and heightened vulnerability say the beef industry would be wise to construct a sturdier umbrella of security in case it does.
"I know we are at risk," said USDA's John Clifford. He was explaining to participants at this year's National Food Animal Identification Symposium in Chicago how it is that in the current absence of a standardized national animal identification system that USDA is limited in how quickly it will be able to respond to a natural, accidental or intentional introduction of a Foreign Animal Disease (FAD) to the United States, such as Foot and Mouth.
Keep in mind the emphasis here on response rather than prevention. A national ID system does nothing to prevent disease. Just ask the folks in Great Britain. Talk with people there who lived through last year's Foot and Mouth horror and its ongoing devastation; the problem wasn't ID or the ability to track the animals. The problem was that by the time officials knew what they were dealing with, infected animals had already clambered aboard trailers and trucks and traveled across Hell's half acre, infecting other livestock.
So, national ID does nothing to keep disease out. With timely and accurate identification of an FAD, though, it could drastically reduce the time it takes to corral the disease, subsequently reducing the ultimate impact it has on the industry and the nation.
Agriculture's Huge and Vulnerable Stake
For perspective, government reports point out that US agriculture accounts for some 13.1 percent of this nation's capitalized Gross Domestic Product and some 16.9 percent of its employment. Agricultural efficiency is such that US producers feed the nation for 11 percent of consumer's disposable incomes—compared to 20-30 percent in much of the rest of the world—while feeding plenty of other folks around the globe. For instance, the US provides 48 percent of the world's soybeans and 41 percent of its corn.
No surprise, then, that protecting agriculture as a whole and its individual components, including the beef industry, has become a key ingredient in the shield of homeland security. After all, a strong argument can be made that it's at more risk to FADs than at anytime in history.
First are the natural and accidental means by which FAD infection could be introduced to the country. According to David Huxsoll, director of USDA's Plum Island Animal Disease Center exotic diseases can enter the country in a variety of ways, including globalization of trade, immigration, US citizens traveling abroad, international visitors and imported animals. "Some of us at Plum Island believe the FMD organism may enter the nation every week," he told a packed house crowd at the Agricultural Publications Summit in July.
As for the intentional introduction of an FAD, Peter Chalk, an agro-terrorism expert from the Rand Corporation says, "If there's one thing that September 11 did teach us it's that we cannot take anything for granted." He adds, "Agriculture is a soft target. There are a number of vulnerabilities by its very nature."
For one thing, agriculture is spread out over a vast number of acres, most of which are accessible by agro-terrorists, either in person, or simply by setting pathogens loose in the air to see where they wind up.
Conversely, US livestock production also consists of a fair bit of aggregation and concentration, be it a poultry broiler house, a swine finishing barn, the 40,000 head of feeders penned at the sale barn for this week's sale or a 60,000-head feed yard. So, a large number of livestock could be infected in one stop.
What's more, Chalk says attacking this nation's livestock with FADs could be an appealing strategy to terrorists because: there is a long list of disease agents to choose from, which, by the way pose no danger to people, thus a terrorist handling the pathogens could rest easy that he wasn't risking his own life; FADs include diseases that spread quickly; and these types of attacks could be orchestrated to appear as if the pathogen was introduced naturally or accidentally. Indeed, there's no definitive proof that last year's global Foot and Mouth outbreak was solely natural or accidental. We just assume it was because we never before had to contemplate such evil inside our own borders.
So, the risk is higher and growing. And, in a classic example of Murphy's Law, our ability to track cattle is decreasing. Up to now, the industry relied largely upon disease eradication programs such as those for Brucellosis and Tuberculosis as a kind of defacto national ID program. The very success of these programs, though, means fewer cattle are identified.
According to Bob Hillman, the state veterinarian for Idaho, from a state perspective, what the industry currently has is: a significant reduction in the number of animals being identified; inadequate data reporting; inadequate collection and correlation of data at slaughter; an increasing number of "unable to trace" cases; and a resurgence in some diseases such as Tuberculosis. All and all, he says it's an ineffective national identification system, one that falls shorts of the tracking needs in the advent of an outbreak of a highly contagious disease.
“If we have an FMD outbreak I can't guarantee I can trace it, or if I can, how quickly,” says Clifford. “We need real-time traceability in this country or we will continue to be vulnerable and at risk.”
Even in a hoped for future where the nation never has to deal with such a catastrophe, the absence of effective industry-wide trace-back and trace-forward—which necessitates national ID, be it individual animal, premises or both—is already costing consumer confidence.
Here at home, Karen Pesaresi Penner, from Kansas State University emphasized to ID Summit participants that at consumers' behest there are likely to be more public interventions aimed at making food safer before it reaches the consumer.
Obviously, ongoing headlines make consumer concerns plain enough. According to Pesaresi there are 76 million food borne illnesses in this country each year. Of those, 325,000 result in hospitalization and 5,000 in death. Is the industry to be blamed? Not necessarily. A variety of studies indicate that consumers by and large either don't know the correct way to handle and prepare fresh foods safely, or they know but don't utilize safety-assuring practices like cooking ground beef to doneness, keeping cooked meat off the same plate they used to carry the raw meat out to the grill, etc. In fact, Pesaresi pointed to one study that documents 53 percent of consumers admitting that they do eat raw animal foods from time to time, and 23 percent saying they eat raw eggs.
It really doesn't matter, though. Right or wrong, consumers are going to expect the industry to do more to protect them from themselves.
Moreover, growing domestic consumer food safety concerns pale in comparison to those of US export customers.
“What we're finding is that we're selling not just the product but safety and the level of trust,” says Phil Seng, CEO of the US Meat Export Federation (USMEF).
For instance, in Japan where the nation imports more than 50 percent of its caloric intake, Seng explains, “They are acutely aware of where their food is coming from and what they're ingesting.”
In studies conducted in Japan—one of America's most valuable export clients—the US currently ranks sixth in the consumer's minds when it comes to food safety. In part, Seng says that's because Japan and other countries are used to importing food products from countries with a government-recognized ID and trace-back system in place. Before you pooh-pooh the international trade, understand that the United States is the largest exporter of beef and pork products in the world. In 1976 the US exported less than $500 million worth of product; last year, even in a global market wracked by fragile economies and worries about BSE and Foot and Mouth, this nation approached $5 billion in meat exports.
“The international market is begging for traceability,” says Seng.
Taking the Ear Tag by the Horns
With all of the above in mind, different factions have been promoting standardized national identification in the livestock industries for going on two decades now. And for just as long producers and their representative groups have been unwilling to entertain the notion for some very good reasons, and for some not so good.
As an example, in no particular order, and by no means comprehensive, producers are concerned about: adding and accepting more liability if their animals are identified rather than turned loose anonymously within the industry mix; who keeps and has access to the data base recording ownership and transfer of ownership information; the cost of implementing such a system.
As for liability, a review by NCBA's legal counsel pointed out that under current liability laws anyone who distributes a defective product that causes damage is liable for damages caused. So, conceivably, a consumer who falls victim to a food borne illness could end up suing the store, the packer, the feedlot and the individual producer, everyone who couldn't prove that product wasn't damaged when it left their place. What's more, even though the number of animals the nation can't trace back continues to rise, the mass majority of cattle can already be traced back to their point of origin without any type of ID system in place. It takes a while, peeking in lots of other people's checking accounts and business receipts unnecessarily, but it can be done.
“The reality of the matter is that a lot of times the cattle can be traced, and as producers the reality is that we want to do the best job we can,” says Allen Bright, chairman of the NCBA Animal Identification subcommittee. “So, if we accept the fact that we have some liability, then we have to focus on how we can manage that risk.”
That's one reason NCBA members did an about-face on the subject of mandatory identification at their last annual meeting. For the purposes of animal disease monitoring, disease prevention and control, members said they would accept a mandatory system.
Which brings us to the vexing questions of who maintains such a data base, who has access to it, what does such a system cost and who pays for it.
These are the very answers the National Food Animal Identification Task Force is trying to come up with. Organized by the National Institute for Animal Agriculture (NIAA), the task force includes representatives from all of the key players that need to agree.
This task force, via working groups representing each species, key producer groups, private industry and government, along with public input is drafting recommendations for a national system that will be submitted to the U.S. Animal Health Association in October. The USAHA serves as an adviser to the USDA in matters pertaining to livestock health and disease. If USAHA accepts the recommendations, the task force hopes USDA will adopt a national plan by the end of this year and implement it within the next two years.
Among the recommendations that may be in the final plan:
*Species-specific premise and/or individual animal identification with a standardized numbering system that enables trace-back to animals within 48 hours; market driven, but mandatory if need be.
*A secure central data base, or multiple ones networked together, housing basic animal identification, origin and movement information, accessible by government for the purpose of health monitoring and disease surveillance, but inaccessible for other purposes.
*Government endorsement that would make for a system recognized as valid by international trading partners.
Without question, producers will bear some cost for such a system one way or the other. Of course, another question that must be asked: what will it cost to let risk manage the industry, rather than the other way around?