Less than 750 miles from U.S. shores lurks a disease that could cost the U.S. pork industry as much as $60 billion. Classical swine fever is widespread in the Caribbean islands and is only a boat ride away from the U.S. mainland.

In reality, there is any number of foreign animal diseases that are ready to infect just one pig and cause massive economic disorder in the U.S. pork industry. Pork producers alone would lose $33.60 per head if only export markets were disrupted in response to a U.S. disease outbreak, according to Iowa State University economists.

Those threats, and the recent problems that U.S. health officials had in tracking down the deadly E. coli source in spinach, should provide enough incentive for the pork industry to promptly implement a swine identification plan. But some disparate voices are delaying progress on getting an ID system in place.

“The pork industry is playing Russian roulette by not having a way to trace all animals back to their previous premises,” says former USDA Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service Administrator Bob Acord. “It’s playing with five of the gun’s six chambers loaded.”

It’s long past time to quiet the naysayers and move forward with a national mandatory ID system for all U.S. swine.

Through policies adopted by their delegate bodies, the National Pork Producers Council and the National Pork Board are working to enhance a swine ID system that’s been in place since 1988. That plan, which addresses pigs moving in interstate and international commerce, helped eradicate pseudorabies. It also lets the industry trace pigs back to their owners within 48 hours. NPPC and NPB have created a Swine Identification Implementation task force made up of all industry segments to implement a more comprehensive system that will improve the U.S. swine health infrastructure.

All pork producers are being asked to register their premises by Dec. 31, 2007. All production operations, markets, assembly points, exhibitions and processing plants must obtain a premises identification number. Identification for groups/lots of pigs, as well as for individual breeding swine and show pigs, should be in place by the end of 2008.

Contrary to the ID critics’ claims, no information that is not now available to public sources-- such as state-issued environmental permits — will be collected for premises registration. If you own hogs, you will have to provide the type of operation, name of the entity, the address, a contact person and phone number.

The pork industry’s ID system will be consistent with USDA’s standards for the National Animal Identification System plan, the main goal of which is 48-hour trace back of an animal to its previous premises. However, we are asking pork producers to move forward more quickly than USDA’s NAIS plan proposes.

The industry’s swine ID task force supports a species-specific approach to animal ID rather than a one-size-fits-all plan. The task force has been working with USDA to get the industry-developed program standards approved. While we’ve worked together to promote premises registration and implement identification standards, some differences remain regarding animal tracking and a national private database. The task force has resisted calls to report all movement information to a single, national database, especially since it would add to producers’ costs.

If forced by law or regulation to report all pig movements, the swine ID task force will lobby to report to state-maintained databases — which should be publicly funded through USDA.

Wisconsin, Indiana and some pork packers already require producers to register their premises, and other states may soon follow. Countries such as Canada, Australia and the United Kingdom have mandatory animal ID systems, which many international trading partners now consider standard. Trading partners want to know that a diseased animal can be isolated quickly. Effective animal traceability through a mandatory animal-identification system will add value to U.S. pork products destined for export.

The pork industry’s ID task force is working to ensure that the swine ID system is accurate, effective and affordable for producers. According to state and APHIS data, 38 percent of U.S. pork producers have registered their premises. That exceeds the livestock industry’s average of 15 percent. But an ID system won’t work without 100 percent participation.

Despite efforts to craft a system that works for all producers, and the obvious market necessity, ID opponents continue to trot out red herrings of “Big Brother” privacy issues and excessive paperwork.

One has to wonder if they would complain about those things if the federal government had to compensate them for animals culled because of a disease outbreak.

Quite simply, the swine ID system is being implemented by producers for producers to help ensure the national swine herd’s health. It will let animal-health officials and producers more easily and rapidly monitor, control, contain and eradicate any disease. It will let the industry maintain prices and markets. But most importantly, it will let pork producers stay in business.