Livestock identification is among the industry’s longest running debates. Nearly 20 years ago, as a new journalist, I asked an industry production expert, “Aren’t you tired of talking about animal ID?” I was, and I had barely begun.

Here we are once again discussing a national animal-identification program. Admittedly, much progress has been made. The swine industry initiated it’s own program in the late 1990s, and several disease eradication programs have premises ID numbers and practices already in place. Now the federal government has stepped in, which raises the bar.

Personally, I see that as a necessary move. It’s probably the only way that some of your species counterparts will move forward. 

My frustration with the topic re-surfaced at the recent Animal ID Info Expo. While it was a well-run and insightful event, there was an undercurrent of foot-dragging by some. Many of the discussions seemed much too familiar, and much too dated — “The industry needs more time to work this out.” Yeah, I’m thinking 20+ years is long enough.

There’s the raw concern that the government is involved, and that can only be bad. No one wants to be mandated to, but there’s too much at stake here in terms of herd health, food security and market access.

I’m sure there’s plenty of knit-picking going on between the government and industries, but it appears that USDA is honoring the work that’s already been done on the U.S. Animal Identification Program. Of course, USDA’s ambitious deadlines laid out earlier this year will likely be pushed back. But, there will be a national animal ID program, and the time is right. 

USDA touts the ID idea as a national herd-health and disease traceability program. But it’s also a market access and accountability program. Other countries are adopting animal ID programs, and they will demand it from their food suppliers.

Japan is stepping up its identification and labeling system for various food products because of growing food-safety concerns. The country’s Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries Ministry will introduce a label that provides information from a pig’s birth to slaughter. By entering the label number at a specified Web site, consumers can access that information.

This system has been in place for beef products since December 2003, and will become mandatory this December. Cases of bovine spongiform encephalopathy in Japan and elsewhere have increased the  Japanese consumers’ anxiety over food security. Opinion polls show that Japanese consumers support these new measures even if it costs them more.

This is significant to U.S. interests because Japan will eventually expect importing countries to meet these standards. Canada has read this message load and clear. Industry officials there are moving forward with animal-identification and trace-back programs. Maple Leaf Foods is taking charge with programs like DNA traceability, which company officials say they will share with Canada’s entire pork industry. Maple Leaf officials point directly to the Japanese market as their motivation.

That particular DNA traceability program is not the same as a national animal ID program for herd-health monitoring. However, DNA is a likely future animal-ID mechanism, and more complete traceability may be a marketing mechanism.

Funding, data collection, security and confidentiality remain the big concerns in a national ID program. That doesn’t mean those things can’t be solved. The technology exists to address those issues. Funding will be a challenge, and the costs will likely be spread around to industry, government and producers. You may be tired of hearing it, but it’s the cost of doing business today. Security issues are part of our world, and food security and the nation’s livestock health deserve more attention.

The industries have had plenty of time to get an animal ID program together. Now your competitors are pulling ahead. The pork industry has been proactive, but a unified approach across the entire U.S. animal agriculture sector would send a strong signal to your U.S. and foreign customers. It also would keep your herd more secure.