USDA announced this week it will reduce testing for mad cow disease. The department says the mad cow problem in the U.S. is not significant enough to warrant the $1 million a week it spends on testing. Over the past two years, USDA has tested some 750,000 cattle and found two cases of the disease. It's unclear how U.S. trading partners that have banned American beef from their markets will respond. Japan initially demanded universal testing before re-opening its borders … and remains skittish about U.S. beef imports. One aspect of the cattle business that might mitigate overseas fears is an animal identification system to track the movement and history of individual cows. For years now, the government has explored ways to implement such a system, but the latest word from USDA is that a mandatory program won't happen until 2009. But some producers aren't waiting. As Nancy Crowfoot explains, they're voluntarily signing on in the hope of turning animal ID into a marketing tool.
It may seem hard to imagine creating order and traceability in an industry that moves more than 97 million head of animals several times between birth and the packing plant. A cow/calf operator may have his or her own system to keep track of the herd, but once sold and transported to a feedlot, every head usually gets processed – the old ear tag may be removed – and replaced.
Under a new system -- a future mandatory system -- a radio frequency identification button-- or RFID sold by many tag manufacturers -- would stay with the cow no matter how many times it is sold or moved. The 15-digit RFID number, and location –or premise ID -- would be entered in a commercial or private database to help locate a cow's whereabouts within 48 hours to control the spread of disease.
John Lawrence, Iowa State University: "It only has the four pieces of information: the premise it left, the premise it entered, the tag number and a time stamp and that would be stored in a database only state or federal veterinarians looking for specific diseases on an approved trace back will be able to access the data."
But access to some in the beef industry, has raised concerns over confidentiality of information in a nationwide system. And that concern in part, has led to reluctance to register their location – or their "premise".
So far, less than 15% of the 2 million farms, feedlots, auction barns, and packers have registered their premises.
But some in the beef industry are embracing the premise registration and RFIDs – not so much for traceability --- but for use in marketing.
Ron Runyan farmer, Bethany, Missouri: "I understand you've got to have a premise number to get QSA qualified. It's suppose to mean more dollars, like anywhere from 5 to 10 dollars a hundred or more. Of course, it qualifies the cattle to go overseas."
To qualify his cattle for specific overseas markets -- cow/calf producer Ron Runyan of Bethany, Missouri received a premise number and purchased RFIDs, so he could participate in a USDA approved marketing program called Quality Systems Assessment -- or QSA. The program – operated by many approved suppliers of agriculture products and services, including Missouri-based MFA -- offers third party verification of age and source of each animal.
There is no national database for Runyan's information, so it managed by the MFA.
Steve Bartholomew, MFA: "We think this is going to be a precursor into the national animal identification scheme that is coming up, you know, this will be that first step and that first level that will allow the producers access into that scheme and that is a comfortable thing because they didn't have to change a lot of things."
Ron Runyan agrees. Through the MFA's Health Track program, he already was keeping records of his feeding and vaccination protocols. For an additional $3 per head, he went one step further.
Ron Runyan, farmer, Bethany, MO: "I'd rather be at the front of the herd as the back because it's pretty dusty at the back of the herd."
Being "at the front of the herd" may mean less work for Runyan when animal ID is likely to be mandated in the future. Having assigned, unique, RFID and premises numbers are also required as part of the export marketing program he participates in, aimed at satisfying Japaneese requirements.
He takes these steps now, even though Japan placed a ban on U.S. beef in January following the discovery of a shipment of veal containing a prohibited substance --spinal bone -- bone the country believes may be a cause of mad cow disease.
With such a ban in place, some cattle buyers are currently less interested in age and source for the export market ... including a client of buyer Charlie Cannon who on this day purchased some of Runyan's cattle.
Charlie Cannon, Lamoni, Iowa cattle buyer: "Well, the thing that they're the most interested in now is quality, condition and the vaccination program."
Cannon admits age and source information may become more important to his clients in the years to come. Several end users are becoming interested -- not just our export trading partners, but some of the domestic customers as well.
For example, in the last couple of years, retailers -- including Wal-Mart, Costco and McDonalds have said they wanted a certain percentage of their meat products source verified.
John Lawrence, Iowa State University: "And that will provide an incentive, if you will. I'm not sure it's a carrot or a stick, but at least an incentive to begin to adopt that system."
Value added marketing and Animal ID are two distinct programs. But once the mandatory ID side is in place, Lawrence says marketing demands could follow.
John Lawrence, Iowa State University: "Right now we don't require information about birthdates or health of the animal or genetics because it is very costly to pass that information. But once all the readers and computers and tags are in place the cost of adding additional information and passing it through the system is quite low. And I think there will be a whole new expectation among buyers once this is in place."
But suggested deadlines for mandatory animal ID are not carved in stone. And if the various proposals are confusing to those in the country … it may be because they are still being sorted out at the federal level in Washington.
February, 2006 Agriculture Appropriations subcommittee meeting: Rep. Rosa DeLauro, (D) Connecticut: "Animal ID. Is it mandatory or voluntary?"
Mike Johanns, U.S. Secretary of Agriculture: "Currently voluntary but could very well become mandatory."
Rep. Rosa DeLauro, (D) Connecticut: "If it's mandatory and if it's private, how do you ensure the producers participation unless you have federal officials who are enforcing it?"
Mike Johanns, U.S. Secretary of Agriculture: "The industry, not universally but by and large, has embraced what's going on here. And they are ready to move forward."
But until Congress and USDA mandate a system, many in the industry are sitting on the fence.
Justin Gibson, co-owner, Lamoni Livestock Auction, Lamoni, Iowa: "We're probably going to have to have something in writing before we go spend much money. I think we could be ready fairly quickly. You know, it would just take a few adjustments in our logistics here. You know, our fear is we don't want to do anything to change our sale, to slow it down."
Some in the cattle industry may continue business as usual -- knowing changes are inevitable. It is not a matter of if, but when.
For Market To Market, I'm Nancy Crowfoot.