Among cattle producers, most concede that the best cattle should bring the highest price. Producers also believe that food-safety and quality assurance should be top priorities for the industry, recognizing that issues such as E. coli, Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy or antibiotic residues could pose significant threats to recent gains in beef demand.

But one key aspect of value-based marketing and quality assurance continues to generate concern among producers-that of source verification. Increasingly, packers and other companies are introducing lines of branded beef products that they sell with specific guarantees for tenderness, flavor, safety and overall consumer satisfaction. Some carry labels specifying management practices such as no implants, no antibiotics, humane handling, grass fed, corn fed or others.

Before retailers or consumers pay premium prices for value-added beef, they want to know where the cattle came from and how they were managed. They want to know that if they find a problem with a load, a box or even a single cut of beef, they can work with their suppliers to identify its source and correct it.
The European experience
The European cattle industry provides an example of a traceback system that American producers do not want, says John Shadduck, a widely recognized veterinary scientist and CEO of OptiBrand Ltd., LLC, a company developing retinal-imaging systems for animal identification (see sidebar). The unfortunate incidence of BSE, and the related human disease CJD, forced an emergency response from governments-first in the United Kingdom, then across Europe, he explains.

Producers there face a mandated traceback system that is cumbersome and expensive. In the UK, for example, the government requires that producers enroll their cattle in a "cattle passport" program, a paper trail that costs about $11.20 per animal.

Randy McSwain serves as operations manager for EZID, LLC, a Greeley, Colo.-based animal-identification company that does business in the United States and internationally. "Here in the United States," he says, "we have the luxury of looking at identification and source verification in a different perspective than that in Europe and elsewhere."

Producers here are looking beyond simple source verification for food safety purposes. "Our beef industry does not want a government mandate for identification, and so far, the government has not gotten involved. We have an opportunity to plan and implement systems that do much more and at a lower cost than those in place elsewhere."

Value added
Animal identification can serve two different, but related purposes, says Duane Flack, director of EZID. "One is traceback for regulatory purposes related to food safety and public health," Dr. Flack explains.

An efficient and effective traceback system could allow companies or government agencies to identify the origin of certain quality defects or food safety problems such as chemical residues or BSE, allowing rapid recall of other animals or beef from the same source. Traceback has less potential for solving microbiological problems in meat because so many opportunities exist for cross contamination during each stage of production and processing.

The other application is using identification in conjunction with production records. The potential payback for producers, in terms of genetic selection and improvements in management practices related to efficiency and beef quality, Dr. Flack believes, are huge. That potential, along with the necessity for beef safety and quality assurance, makes animal identification and source verification inevitable. "It's going to happen," he says.

Dr. McSwain says the source-verification system in the United States is evolving to one focused more on verifying management practices and providing circular information flow.

Only about 2 percent of U.S. cattle now carry electronic identification, but Dr. McSwain expects that number to climb to 100 percent in the near future. "We expect to see a situation in which, if you have animals that are not individually identified, you won't be able to sell them."

Bryan Dierlam, Associate Director, Agricultural and Marketing Policy, National Cattlemen's Beef Association agrees that identification is linked to more than one issue, and stresses that any effort toward source verification should be part of a comprehensive BQA program. "We see the key to overall success in the industry as building quality into every phase of production." A comprehensive beef-quality assurance program addresses palatability issues along with food safety.

NCBA supports voluntary programs, but not any government mandate. "Producers should use individual identification because it impacts their bottom line," Mr. Dierlam says.

Animal identification was the topic of a daylong symposium held Jan. 31 at NCBA's annual convention. Several committees addressed the issue in their final reports, which were presented to the board of directors. The association reaffirmed its added provision that NCBA would oppose a mandatory system. One exception is that NCBA favors a mandatory program for live cattle imported into the country that are not in a sealed vehicle being taken directly to slaughter.

Market driven
Symposium participants stressed that as people's standards of living improve, they demand more information and more value-added features in the products they buy. If you doubt this trend, take a shopping trip to any major urban supermarket and look at the selection of branded meat and dairy products. Information makes these products worth premium prices to consumers who value traits such as "hormone free," "natural," "low fat," "environmentally friendly" or breed specifications.

"We're at the leading edge of a revolution in the American beef industry," Dr. McSwain says. "Alliances and branded-beef programs will direct much of the shift toward individual identification, but the mandate will come from consumers."
Our market-driven approach will allow a source verification process to provide benefits well beyond the systems used in Europe. It will provide traceback for safety purposes, but also will allow marketers to certify production processes and sell beef at premium prices. And it will facilitate information exchange to promote improvement throughout the production chain.