Anyone who knows me knows I adamantly oppose government interference in the marketplace. I believe government should be restricted in both power and scope whenever possible.
However, I'm not nearly as dogmatic as I used to be where a national animal ID system is concerned. Yes, I understand the National Cattlemen's Beef Association (NCBA) position that ID should be voluntary, but NCBA also is keenly aware of the drivers in the marketplace, and what our customers are demanding regarding traceability. What they're demanding is simply 100%.
Can you trace an outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease if only 90% of livestock are in the system? Will consumers be satisfied knowing the farm of origin is documented on only 75% of U.S. calves? Will the global community be satisfied with age verification that covers just 33% of U.S. cows, or 25% of all cattle movements? And then only if the U.S. is given 6-8 weeks to conduct an investigation?
Of course not. That's why the government will demand it as an essential tool in protecting the U.S. cow herd and consumer safety. Our customers -- consumers, restaurants and grocery stores -- are demanding it, and it's quickly becoming a cost of participating in the global beef market.
A voluntary program with 100% participation sounds to me strikingly like mandatory national ID. The real issues are if the system will be industry driven, and the data protected in private hands; and those hurdles have been cleared. USDA, recognizing it couldn't protect the data, and that private industry could do it more efficiently, more securely, and with the ability to add value creation along with it, has stepped aside.
If free enterprise works, consumers are demanding it, and our industry has the ability to do it, why are we spinning our wheels?
The most progressive cow-calf producers already have embraced national ID and, at the least, are source and age verifying their products. Breed associations, private companies and state cattlemen's groups all have producer-level programs, and the national entity has been created.
Why we seem to be stuck in quicksand is obvious -- we haven't had to move. USDA (www.usda.gov/nais) has set implementation target dates in 2008 and 2009 and, like a kid waiting until the last minute to do his chores, many in the industry are on hold, and at tremendous risk to themselves.
Thankfully, the invisible hand of the marketplace is already moving -- McDonald's is paying premiums, and Wal-Mart is making demands. And, with the impending reopening of the Japan market, we're likely to see premiums equaling those producers enjoyed last fall for source- and age-verified cattle.
USDA target dates for implementation may be two years off, but the economic incentive for cow-calf producers is clear -- they need to be compliant by the next time they market their calves.
The system will never be perfect, but it doesn't have to be. Canada has already concluded the investigation of its latest BSE case, which occurred weeks before the U.S. case in Alabama. Meanwhile, the U.S. investigation finally closed with the admission we couldn't trace the animal.
Put yourself in the position of Korea, Japan or even Wal-Mart, and tell me which product gives you more confidence? The time to move forward was yesterday.