Change is in the air for cattle ID and traceability in the U.S.

Burt Rutherford, Senior Editor

August 1, 2018

3 Min Read
Will we eventually get lifetime animal ID and traceability? Probably so

Lifetime cattle ID and traceability, she’s a’comin’.

Really? Yep, really. Or at the very least, highly likely.

I had the honor and privilege of speaking to members of the International Livestock Identification Association (ILIA) several weeks ago at their annual conference. This was the second year that I’ve joined the group to discuss BEEF readers’ views on traceability and animal ID.

ILIA is comprised of brand inspectors and law enforcement officials in U.S. states, Canadian provinces and Native American Tribal Nations where livestock brand recording, livestock ID and inspection are recognized by legislation. So clearly, these folks are very interested, and have a big stake in, how animal ID and traceability will eventually play out in the beef business.

READ: Full Circle: Cattle ID and traceability

So what do our readers think about all this? We did a survey last year to get a handle on that question, then tacked several questions on the end of our annual State of the Industry survey we do each spring. This year, when asked, “Are you in favor of a national animal identification and traceability system that could track the location of individual animals throughout their lives?,” 61% of all respondents said yes while 39% said no. For comparison, 58% said yes and 42% said no in our 2017 traceability survey.

This question is important because at present, outside of traceability systems for various value-added programs, the U.S. doesn’t have a nationwide birth-to-consumer traceability system. The USDA Animal Disease Traceability (ADT) system we have now is a bookend system, where breeding cattle over 18 months of age, along with rodeo stock and show cattle, are identified when they cross state lines. That ID stays with the animal until harvest. Notably, feeder cattle are exempt.

When we asked the majority “yes” respondents why they support lifetime traceability, we got these responses:

  • Disease containment and traceback...83%

  • Gives U.S. beef the ability to enter more foreign markets...79%

  • Consumer transparency...71%

  • Adds value to my calves...61%

  • Thwart cattle theft and speed recovery of stolen animals...50%

The figures add up to more than 100% because of multiple answers.

When we asked the “no” votes for their reasons, they said:

  • Who pays for this?...69%

  • Lack of data confidentiality...47.5%

  • Brands and Bangs tags are good enough...42%

  • Potential liability from future buyers...39%

  • Who I sell my cattle to is nobody’s business...36.5%

  • Slows down commerce...26%

  • Technology does not work properly...23%

RELATED: Survey says beef producers give cautious support to traceability

There are valid reasons and concerns on both side of the equation. The ILIA folks would like to access ID and traceability information as they investigate cattle theft. Given that a majority of folks who favor lifetime ID think that’s a good idea, the ability for investigators to have access to that data is supported.

Under the ADT system, however, no outside entity can access the data. I think a lot of folks support that as well, so that HSUS, PETA and other groups of similar ilk can’t get your information.

READ: It's past time for beef industry traceability

We may be on the cusp of change in that regard. The Cattle Traceability Working Group, an outfit independent from any other cattle or beef organization, has been formed to work on an industry-led and governed ID and traceability system. Given the advent of blockchain technology, it’s possible to isolate data and only allow access to certain groups. Under a government program, that’s probably not possible.

There are still many concerns and many details to work through. And there are 10% of beef producers who flat-out oppose the idea of lifetime ID and traceability, or any form of ID and traceability, for that matter. We learned that from a traceability study commissioned by NCBA and released early this year.

BEEF’s prediction is that at some point, we’ll have a nationwide, lifetime ID and traceability system of some sort. When that will happen is hard to say, but we think it will happen.

So, what about that 10%? Will they eventually be left in the dust of an ever-changing and ever-progressing industry?

Time will tell.


About the Author(s)

Burt Rutherford

Senior Editor, BEEF Magazine

Burt Rutherford is director of content and senior editor of BEEF. He has nearly 40 years’ experience communicating about the beef industry. A Colorado native and graduate of Colorado State University with a degree in agricultural journalism, he now works from his home base in Colorado. He worked as communications director for the North American Limousin Foundation and editor of the Western Livestock Journal before spending 21 years as communications director for the Texas Cattle Feeders Association. He works to keep BEEF readers informed of trends and production practices to bolster the bottom line.

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