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A Decade Later, U.S. Beef Industry No Closer To 48-Hour Traceback

48hour traceback

Even if you support mandatory animal identification (ID) and tracking, you’d be excused for not knowing the requirements of USDA’s Animal Disease Traceability (ADT) program; or the fact, with exceptions, that official ID and documentation have been mandatory for the interstate movement of cattle since March 11.

The journey to the industry’s original, clear-cut ID destination — traceback of any head of livestock within 48 hours — has been long (more than 10 years) and herky-jerky (the program is in its third name and incarnation). It’s also littered with many roadblocks, real and imagined.

The destination has changed, too. Rather than 48-hour traceback, ADT steers toward a bookend type of system: that is, to know the identity of the cattle headed into one end of the marketing channel and coming out the other, then to piece together the history in between, if necessary.

The ride of choice has changed, too. While approved electronic ID (EID) is an option (along with dangle tags, brands in some cases, etc.), USDA is making metal clip tags available cost-free to producers … as long as funding permits.

Think in terms of the ones used as part of the brucellosis eradication program: the brite tags. They’re hard to beat for providing permanent ID, but they’re less than ideal if you need to grab an ear, read the tag and transcribe the tag number on a load of cattle at the speed of commerce.

Those metal tags are cheap, though. Besides, for all of the top-notch technology available, none have convinced the industry that they are a comprehensive solution.


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For the record, “Traceability for Livestock Moving Interstate” is the rule that became law, underpinning ADT. Unless specifically exempted, livestock moved interstate must be identified with an official form of ID and moved with a Certificate of Veterinary Inspection or other approved documentation.

For beef cattle, the rule applies to sexually intact cattle older than 18 months of age. The notion is to take baby steps before extending the requirement to feeder and stocker cattle. That makes a world of sense on one hand. On the other, it delays the inevitable, which is a whole different beast.

Keep in mind that beef cattle are the 2-ton monkey in the ID closet. Dairy, pork and poultry have longstanding ID and traceback programs that are part of how they do business, and that easily comply with ADT.

Even with the shorter-journey, user-friendly mode of transportation, and ample opportunity to learn the gears before tackling feeder cattle, plenty of potholes remain. Among these is the simple fact that state animal health officials must implement the federal law while continuing to comply with their own animal movement requirements. In other words, two different states’ laws may be in compliance with ADT, but the form of ID or documentation that complies with each other’s state laws may be different. This is creating a fair bit of confusion so far.

A white paper from this summer’s Joint Strategy Forum on Animal Disease Traceability identifies specific challenges and priorities.

None of this is to ignore the folks who began identifying cattle electronically a long time ago for management purposes, and to exploit marketing opportunities. And none of this is to suggest that mandatory animal ID and tracking are unnecessary, or that ADT can’t ultimately achieve what it’s designed to do.

At its best, though, ADT can’t provide the level of traceability some consumers and nations desire. That will likely become more pronounced when the industry has the supply necessary to chase after the market share it’s currently losing — due to a contracting cowherd — to pork and poultry domestically, and to other beef-producing countries abroad.

At its best, ADT can’t provide 48-hour traceback. ADT may be mandatory, but like the federal programs that preceded it, the National Animal Identification System and the U.S. Animal Identification Plan, the reality of 48-hour traceback continues to shimmer a ways in the distance.


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