Foreign animal disease and food safety concerns are fueling the fire for a nationwide animal identification program. Even U.S. Homeland Security Director Tom Ridge says an animal identification program is worth investigating to protect the nation’s food supply.

Within five years, you will be able to pick up a package of meat and trace that meat back to the producer, predicts Rick Sibbel, DVM, technical services director for Global Animal Management.

The U.S. Animal Health Association has endorsed a national animal identification work plan as developed by an National Institute for Animal Agriculture task force for all of animal agriculture to safeguard U.S. livestock. The goal of the work plan is to idenfity every animal that has had direct contact with a suspect animal within 48 hours in the event of foreign animal disease or other significant disease.

There are also the food-safety demands of export customers to consider. Sibbel notes that traceability is becoming a critical discussion point with export markets, particularly Japan. That market has more room for future development, and our export competitors, such as Canada, are already preparing their own traceback systems.

Even though more entities are beginning to demand traceability, the U.S. pork industry isn’t embracing the concept quickly. The Canadians seem to be more motivated at adopting a fully traceable system. They already have two plants working on it.

Keep in mind, two years ago, there were practically no discussions with U.S. packers about such coordination. Today, every packer is talking about it. “Most packers have new business units established within the company to look at the feasibility of traceability,” adds Sibbel.

Here in the United States, several genetic companies have moved to electronic sow identification and offspring identification to assess individual animals. More packers also are using electronic applications at the gambrel (carcass) level, which is one of the first steps toward in-plant coordination.

According to Sibbel, at least three things need to happen before (electronic) identification through the pork chain can become a reality. You have to gather information at the farm level. The packing plant has to be coordinated to assess carcass value, assign a financial worth and be able to report back to the producer concerning the pigs’ quality level. Then, every packer has to decide how he will deliver this information back to the producer.

“The packing industry’s historical inability to provide more individual information to producers is the missing link to producing a more consistent product,” says Sibbel. “Producers want to know how each pig cuts out, but packers haven’t been able to do it. Today, more plants are coordinated than they were five years ago, and there will be even more in the next five years.”

Industry consultant, Dennis DiPietre, agrees that information sharing is a major stumbling block in the pork industry. “It’s clear that electronic information systems greatly improve the potential for identity preservation of a product and supply-chain management,” he notes.

DiPietre contends the only way for a traceable system to be successful is to be implemented through a fully integrated pork chain or as a government mandated program. Independent pork producers would fall under the government-mandated side. The first stage of which may be country-of-origin labeling, he says.

Producers’ biggest fear of a mandatory traceable system is the cost. But, Dipietre contends that producers have to play a more pro-active role.

“Producers must begin to consider how they can capture and control their own information to improve the value of traceability for their own situation,” he says. “Swine veterinarians also will play critical roles in developing and implementing quality assurance programs. But more importantly, they will be key to successfully gaining the full production economic benefits of a traceable information stream.”

Another factor in the future is that traceability will lead to more closely coordinated supply chains, says DiPietre. This could mean further vertical integration involving companies. It could also mean more cooperatives among producers within the industry, or coordinated ventures between packers and producers.            

On a similar note, Sibbel believes the model for the future is being set by a few producer groups who are trying to get into the packing industry.

“The open market where you don’t know the value of your pigs can’t last,” he adds. “Every one of these new companies will have a business plan that gives incentives to animals that are identified and traced. They haven’t figured out the economics, but they see it as the future direction.”

Retailers also play an important role in the equation. “Retailers want more information about their meat products, but haven’t worked through the economics of marketing these products. They would like to get traceability with little added cost,” notes Sibbel.

Retailers are headed toward more value-added products and away from commodity products. This means they will begin asking for specific characteristics identified on the meat package to market them to a higher-level consumer.             

“Every retailer I’ve talked to has indicated that’s where they’re headed, they just don’t know how to pay for it,” adds Sibbel. “The bells and whistles will be information about who, when and how the product was produced. But the retailer has to work more closely with the producer.”

Getting started will be the hardest part. Most likely, the industry will begin with some type of group identification system versus individual animal identification. It will be easier and cheaper to implement.

The reality of traceability is that it’s an evolution; it won’t happen overnight. Many parties agree it’s a sound idea, but getting all links in the pork chain on board remains the challenge. 

Offering Endless Possibilities
Rick Sibbel, DVM, outlined the opportunities that individual animal identification and tracking would provide the producer, retailer and consumer during a presentation at the American Association of Swine Veterinarians annual meeting. Here are some of the points:

1. It would provide on-farm assessments of the individual profitability of pigs, and sow production.

2. Offer on-farm paperless recordkeeping with locally available real-time reporting.

3.  Allow comparisons of different genetic lines within the same system without changing production movement patterns.

4. Carcass evaluations could be linked to life-cycle events for predictive productive management patterns.

5. Provides farm-level transparency that could validate and associate husbandry practices to the carcass.

6. Could create pork to meet specifications driven by retail needs without converting the entire pork system to those new specifications. Offer more niche marketing options.

7. Compare sibling differences to product or management changes using individual carcass summaries as the decision tool.

8. Validate the use or non-use of antibiotics at certain growth stages.

9. Accommodate retail needs to manufacture specific pork meat characteristics.