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Which Way to Traceability?

Beef system traceability in the U.S. is at a crossroad. Which way will it turn?

It's late at night and a visitor stops at a flashing yellow light of a rural intersection. With some uncertainty, the visitor peers over the steering wheel, foot on the brake, hand on the turn signal. Which way to go?

That's the situation in which beef system traceability finds itself in the U.S., according to Gary C. Smith, Colorado State University distinguished professor and holder of the Ken and Myra Monfort chair in meat science. He says, “Traceability in the U.S. is sort of treading water,” waiting for something to happen to propel it to the next step. When that happens is anybody's guess. But while the timeframe may be uncertain, the eventual move by the U.S. cattle industry to some form of life-cycle traceability seems a pretty safe bet.

Actually, Smith says, the U.S. cattle industry does quite a bit of traceability now. “Traceability, as we have defined it in the U.S., is of two types,” he says. “The first of those is what we call the bookends system, which is really just recording the time and place of birth and time and place of harvest.” Source and age verification is an example of a bookends-type of traceability system.

The other is life-cycle traceability, which is the system used in most countries that mandate beef traceability. Life-cycle traceability includes not just time and place of birth and harvest, but everything that happens in between. U.S. cattlemen who are producing organic, grass-fed, or humanely raised beef, or beef with other “credence” attributes would use life-cycle traceability.

Credence attributes are things that were or weren't done as production practices that nobody can see in the end product, Smith says. It's all the things that become part of the story that is used to sell those brands or kinds of beef. “In order to have those in a product, there has to be some sort of traceability and there has to be some sort of third party auditing.”

Both types of traceability, as practiced in the U.S., are market-driven, Smith says. “Someone gets a premium for doing those things.”

Four factors

Smith doesn't think anything more will happen in the U.S. unless one of four scenarios plays out:

  • “First of all, if we have a foreign animal disease in the U.S. For example, foot and mouth disease,” he says. Then either the government or the beef industry will mandate it.

  • “The second thing that could happen is if some or all of our export markets start to demand it.” Should that happen, there would be two options — either the government makes it mandatory or the production sector would develop a market-driven system.

  • “The third scenario is if the U.S. Congress, especially in the socialistic mode in which it appears to be headed, decides to make it mandatory for food safety protection.” There's also the possibility, within the global warming debate, that Congress could mandate traceability to inform consumers of the carbon footprint of the food they buy.

  • Which brings up the fourth scenario — “The big supermarkets, for example Wal-Mart or Costco, could demand it in order to meet what they consider their needs for sustainability or a carbon footprint number.” Smith says Norway just did exactly that — all foods sold in grocery stores must display a carbon footprint number.

Will it happen?

“I think the thing we're waiting on at the moment is South Korea,” Smith says. There, life-cycle traceability is very much in play. Consumers can walk up to a kiosk in their favorite supermarket with a package of meat and instantly see everything they might want to know about it — where the animal was born, its sire's name, the farmer's name, the packing plant where the meat was processed and so on. Or, they could use their cell phone or personal computer to access the information.

“That's very similar to the system that's been in place in Japan for a number of years,” Smith says. “So, the next shoe that drops, I think, is going to be either Japan or South Korea claiming that the World Trade Organization allows them to require anyone sending them product to do the same as they require of their own domestic producers. ‘We want life-cycle traceability,’ they'll say.”

Smith doesn't think a nationally mandated system would be necessary in this last scenario. “If some of our export markets require it, then I think we would use the Brazilian option,” he says.

Brazilians are able to meet the traceability needs of their European export markets by packers and producers getting together and setting up a system where all the cattle harvested for the export market meet traceability requirements. The system isn't without its problems, however, he admits. In fact, legislation was recently introduced in Brazil to make the system mandatory.

But, that's assuming it's just South Korea that drops the hammer. That country accounts for about 25% of the U.S. export market.

“I think the packers, producers and feeders are entrepreneurial enough that we can supply that demand,” Smith says. “But, once it gets beyond 25%, it's going to be very difficult for us to produce enough (beef).” That's because Korea and Japan tend to buy higher-quality beef. “We produce Prime and the upper end of Choice almost by accident. So we've got to have a huge supply coming in to the packer to be able to sort through and find the product we want for export.”

Smith encourages the beef industry, as it moves forward on the future of traceability in the U.S., to develop a market-driven system if at all possible. “So long as we can keep it private, then the benefits, the premiums, accrue to the producers who do it,” he says.

Benefits & costs

While the National Animal Identification System (NAIS) was designed to be a traceback system for animal disease control and eradication, the template has other potential uses. At USDA's request, university researchers conducted a year-long analysis of the benefits and costs of NAIS. Some of their conclusions:

  • Economic benefits in both the domestic and international marketplace resulting from enhanced traceability may be greater than the cost savings realized during animal disease control and eradication efforts.

  • The total cost for implementing NAIS in the cattle sector is $175.9 million at 90% participation — about 0.5% of the retail value of U.S. beef products.

  • Traceability is becoming a global standard.

  • A full (life cycle) traceability program would add an estimated average of $5.97/head to the cost of cattle marketed. The estimated cost of a bookends system is roughly 79% of the full traceability system.

View the complete analysis at
Burt Rutherford

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