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Source and Age Verification Can Add Value to Calves

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Upon discovery of the first case of bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) in the United States in December 2003, virtually all beef exports came to a halt. Since then, several countries have resumed beef trade with the United States. However, the rules have changed, and beef that is to be exported must comply with a number of restrictions.

For most countries, these rules generally restrict trade to boneless, boxed beef from cattle 30 months of age or younger. However, the current agreement with Japan requires cattle to be 20 months of age or younger. Export rules are established in the USDA's Beef Export Verification (BEV) Program and these rules apply to companies, packing plants, feedlots and fabricators who supply beef for export. Rules contained within the BEV Program are specific to the export destination, therefore, beef suppliers must comply with rules established for their specific target market.

Prior to the discovery of BSE in the United States, Japan was the top export market for U.S. beef. Recently, trade with Japan has resumed for the second time. The U.S. beef industry learned a valuable lesson about strictly adhering to trade agreements in January 2006 when Japan reinstated the trade ban after a U.S. processor violated that agreement. Of the specified product requirements in the BEV Program for Japan, the primary requirement cattle producers need to be concerned with is verification of age at the time of slaughter. There are two accepted methods of age verification for export to Japan. The first is through carcass evaluation by a USDA grader at the packing plant, and the second is through production records traceable to the birth premises that are verified by USDA or an approved third-party program.

Depending on growth in the trade volume with Japan, physiological carcass grading for age verification may not qualify enough beef to meet Japanese demand. The alternative is verification of age through production records. Proof of age using production records starts with the cow-calf producer. For production records to be accepted as proof of age for an animal, the supplier or producer must have in place, or be part of a USDA-approved Quality Systems Assessment (QSA) program or a Process Verified Program (PVP). Cattle must be individually identified and traceable back to the ranch of origin. Production records must indicate either the actual birth date of each individual calf being sold, or, if the producer has a group of calves born in the same calving season, each calf may be identified with the actual date of birth of the oldest calf in the group.

Both QSA programs and PVPs can be used to meet the BEV program requirements for export to Japan. The general differences between the two programs are that QSA programs usually document only age and source verification, whereas PVPs can be widely defined and can include verification of other beef attributes (e.g. all-natural claims, preconditioning claims, etc.).

The question now is whether to join a QSA program or PVP. Both programs will meet the age verification requirement for export to Japan. Most QSAs are associated with a packer or feedlot and are not transferable to another buyer, but there is generally little or no cost for a producer to participate. Most PVPs are administered by independent companies or associations and cattle can be sold to any buyer. However, often there is a cost associated with the program in addition to the ear tag to cover the cost of on-farm evaluation of procedures.

Producers should review the available programs' procedures/guidelines and determine which program is best for them. Participation in a QSA or PVP is strictly voluntary, but it does provide the opportunity to add value to your calves. More information and a list of current QSA programs and PVPs are available on these Web sites: http://www.gipsa.usda.gov/ and www.ams.usda.gov/Lsg/arc/qsap.htm.