The United States is risking the loss of billions of dollars in meat exports by its inability to bring animal identification and traceability up to standards being set, and probably soon to be required, by our trading partners.

According to the U.S. Meat Export Federation, U.S. pork exports totaled $4.329 billion in 2009 while beef exports for the same period totaled $3.082 billion. That’s over $7.4 billion just in those two commodities that could be in serious jeopardy due to the bureaucratic lack of resolve and various objections among some in the livestock industry.

Warnings and calls to action have been made by many whose job it is to be aware and current with animal traceability. “We need to get our traceability up to speed quickly to maintain a competitive position,” says Gene Hugoson, Minnesota Department of Agriculture commissioner. “Canada, for example, is moving aggressively to put a system in place and soon may be able to respond to an emergency faster than the United States.”

The United States is falling behind in this key area that could soon cost us preferred supplier status. As a result, we run the risk of being kept out of some markets while our competitors fill the need. We must be able to assure our trading partners that we can contain and eradicate animal diseases in a timely manner or our customers will buy elsewhere.

“In the more advanced (markets) we export to, like Korea, Japan and Europe, traceability schemes are already part of the fabric of their domestic industries,” said Phil Seng, president and chief executive officer of the USMEF in a recent interview with Meatingplace at the World Meat Congress. “We need to take a look at what it takes for us to be globally competitive. It’s critical that we address this issue and address it soon.”

Seng says that producers who deliver fully traceable animals to market will likely receive premium pricing. “Going forward, when making policy decisions, we need to do it with an eye on what’s going on in our export markets and what our competition is doing.”

In February of this year, USDA dropped its National Animal Identification System in favor of developing a system controlled and monitored by individual states and tribes. Now, differences between states’ policies and strapped state budgets could further delay implementation of a workable traceability system.

To be sure, progress is being made in re-designing the animal traceability system, but is it moving rapidly enough? Let’s hope it is implemented before the next major food safety scare.

The United States is the low-cost, high quality meat supplier to the world. Why gamble with this leadership position? It is a distinction that could evaporate if we do not get up to speed quickly by adopting and implementing a fully-functional animal identification and disease traceability system. The clock is ticking.