Japan will be stepping up its labeling system for pork, poultry, rice and vegetables, because of growing food-safety concerns.

Specific to pork, the country’s Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries Ministry will introduce a label that will provide information from a pig's birth to its slaughter. By entering the label number at a specified Web site, consumers can access information on the pork they purchased– down to the individual farm where the pig was raised.

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 to trace food origin, even if it costs them more.

This move is significant to U.S. interests because Japan will eventually expect its other food-product suppliers to step up and meet their standards. Canada has read this message load and clear. Industry officials there are moving forward with animal-identification and trace-back programs. Certainly companies like Maple Leaf Foods are taking charge with programs like DNA traceability, which officials have said they will eventually share the technology with the Canadian industry. Maple Leaf officials point directly to the Japanese market as the motivation behind their activity in this area.

Meanwhile, the United States is giving a lot of lip-service to animal identification, but little urgent commitment as was evident from last week’s Animal ID Info Expo in Chicago. The conference was a gallant effort in bringing the animal-agriculture sectors together to talk about moving ID forward. There’s also much work already completed in outlining the U.S. Animal Identification Program—all of which should be applauded. But there remains deep division and skepticism—especially within the beef industry—toward a national program.

“Keep the government out, and let the industry direct the activities,” was the message.

My message– the industries have had plenty of time (decades) to get a program together. Time is running out, and your competitors are pulling away from the pack. The pork industry has gotten this message, having implemented its own ID system in the late 1990s, but a unified approach across all of U.S. animal agriculture would send a strong signal to your U.S. and forgein customers.