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National ID Is Front & Center, Again

The issue of national identification and traceability for the U.S. livestock industry has been an ugly one. The old National Animal Identification System scheme created a lot of debate and animus within the industry, eventually leading USDA to table it in favor of a new approach.

USDA’s newly proposed rule addresses many of the questions raised under the first proposal but it isn’t expected to be any less controversial. You can read the proposed rule here. That’s partly due to the fact that the two sides of the argument have had a long time to solidify their bases. In addition, the whole ID and traceability issue tucks nicely into the “big vs. small” framework that’s been so successfully exploited by certain groups struggling for relevancy.

To be sure, the issue is loaded with conundrums. Nobody wants the government involved in the marketplace. And, a voluntary program is much more agreeable to most folks than a mandatory one. Unfortunately, unlike mandatory country of original labeling, where a voluntary program was a viable option as it was a marketing program, a voluntary program on the livestock ID front virtually ensures that the program will be incapable of actually meeting the goals of the program, which is to have rapid and accurate traceability.

Another conundrum is that virtually everyone recognizes our current system as incapable of providing fast traceback, and that such a capability is needed to protect the domestic livestock industry and allow U.S. access to foreign markets. But, it also means more expense, more work, and a slowing of the speed of commerce.

While there is, of course, the chance of agricultural bioterrorism being perpetrated in this country, the reality is that this traceback system’s primary use will be for situations like bovine tuberculosis, BSE or some other more regionalized disease issue. The list of pros and cons is significant, and many of the differences are irreconcilable.

What we do know, however, is that this issue is coming to a head quickly. Many organizations have called for an extension to the comment period beyond Nov. 9. And, while most would prefer more time to analyze the new proposed rule, it’s unlikely that USDA will be agreeable to extending the process.

In the meantime, cattlemen’s groups are frantically trying to wrap their hands around the proposal and determine how it aligns or contradicts with current policy. The truth is that it’s one of those issues whose answer is unlikely to satisfy very many producers. This issue comes down to a simple cost vs. benefit analysis, and reasonable people will come down on both sides. Industry input will be critical in what promises to be a rather fast-moving issue.