Commentary: Traceability is like a bad penny

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Animal identification is like a bad penny, it just keeps coming back around. But unlike that penny, animal ID/traceback is becoming increasingly valuable in the marketplace and not having an all-inclusive program is becoming increasingly risky. Whether the final numbers for U.S. export sales close out 2011 at 25 percent or 27 percent of this year’s total production, keeping markets open is essential to pork producers’ viability and animal ID is key.

It’s been more than 25 years that I walked into a colleague’s office at the National Pork Producers Council to interview him for an article on — you guessed it — animal ID. I had been out of college just a few years, but had already attended several animal ID meetings and heard much debate and many challenges regarding the need to move forward with a multi-species’ program.

I walked in, sat down and said to my colleague, “Aren’t you sick of talking about animal ID? When is this ever going to move forward?” As an industry veteran, he had a diplomatic answer but also one that expressed confidence that it wouldn’t be many more years.  

Well, here we are 25+ years later and we’re still debating the logic behind identifying animals. Sure, the pork industry moved forward with an ID program of its own in 1987, and has excellent participation. Other species also have significant portions of their producers aligned in programs, often tied to efforts to clean up a nagging and costly disease.  

Still there are many outliers who want nothing to do with any kind of animal ID or traceability-- no way, no how. They are a tenacious and vocal bunch. Among their rally cries-- the cost is burdensome; people with just a few animals shouldn’t have to conform to ID requirements, it’s the big producers who pose the risk; or why should small producers have to ID their animals just because the big guys have the most to lose. But the most common obstacle is aligned with the argument that my animals are my business, no one else’s and certainly not the governments’. The idea that not only is big brother watching but he’s telling me what to do is the conviction that runs the deepest.   

Heaven forbid an outbreak of foreign animal disease, or a disease that we haven’t even gotten a hint of yet, surfaces. Not only would our export markets slam shut, but it would jeopardize our relationship with consumers at home. You know, our fellow citizens think we already are able to traceback the animals that are raised for their food.

But the notion that someone with a couple of cows, pigs, chickens or whatever is less of a risk than someone who’s made it their livelihood to produce meat for the world’s hungry population always makes me shake my head in wonder. Diseases and viruses are not selective; they do not skip over one site because there are just a few animals there. Nor are diseases always specific to one species. Foot-and-mouth disease of course is the poster child for just such a nightmare. Just ask folks with cloven-hoofed animals in Korea, China, England or any number of other countries.

No one knows how or when such a disease might surface, it could come from a person, another domestic animal, wildlife or simply from evolution— after all, that’s how viruses and bacteria survive.

We—as in the U.S. animal agriculture sector—need an effective, mandatory, all-inclusive animal ID program. Yes, I included the “m” word, because we all know even then it will be hard to get 100 percent involvement.

As I said, maintaining market access and customer trust with traceability isn’t exclusive to the export market, but the reality is without exports, anyone who sold a hog this year would have taken home $54 per animal less. Cattlemen would have been short $200 per head. More importantly, imagine what it would have happened if the U.S. market had to suddenly absorb 14 percent more cattle/beef and 27 percent more hogs/pork.  

USDA once again has a proposal in place for an animal ID/traceback program. It follows yet another series of listening sessions. A public comment period was extended from its Nov. 9 deadline to Dec. 9, so there’s still time to get your message across (and I know that includes those for and against animal ID.) Pork producers have done a tremendous job in the past letting USDA know how important animal ID is to U.S. agriculture. You may be sick of the delay and wonder when is this ever going to move forward, but get out your pen one more time and let USDA know how important animal ID/traceback is to you and the consumer.

It is the responsible thing to do.

(Note: To read the proposed rule and to get more information specific to livestock species, visit the USDA/APHIS Traceability website.

To submit comments electronically, go the Federal eRulemaking Portal. Or send your comments to:

Docket No. APHIS-2009-0091, Regulatory Analysis and Development, PPD, APHIS, Station 3A-03.8, 4700 River Road, Unit 118, Riverdale, MD 20737-1238.)


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