If you are a beef producer or have ties to the beef industry, I bet you can remember where you were when bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) officially was discovered in the United States. The exact date was Dec. 23, 2003. I was at home preparing for our family Christmas vacation. The next day, a barrage of early morning talk shows presented mostly erroneous information and, for the most part, sent a message that U.S. beef was unsafe to consume. Luckily, most markets of trade were closed, allowing a cool-down period prior to the sale of any significant numbers of cattle. I don't remember much about Christmas gifts that year, but I do remember the anxious feelings I had wondering how the cattle markets were going to respond when they did open.
The implementation of a National Animal Identification System (NAIS) had been discussed prior to finding BSE in the United States, primarily due to the safety concerns associated with highly communicable foreign animal diseases, such as BSE and foot and mouth. These concerns mainly were spawned by the devastating economic losses associated with these diseases in South America and the United Kingdom. A NAIS supposedly would provide the traceability (the goal was within 48 hours) that would allow industry and government officials to identify and quarantine infected/suspect animals, as well as provide confidence to consumers of beef and the general public. The original intent was to implement a mandatory national identification program by 2009. In the wake of all the happenings associated with finding that first BSE cow, I don't remember anyone saying that this was not a good idea.
So what happened? To date, there is no industry-wide system in place, and now we are being told that the NAIS program is voluntary and that each state will determine which type of program (voluntary or mandatory) best suits them.
A lot has happened since December 2003. Our emotions have been tempered, and we now know how controversial this topic is within our industry. The hurdles to overcome were many and included a lack of dedicated infrastructure, questions regarding who is going to pay for it, anxiety towards government involvement, and issues related to how it would be enforced and who would enforce it. The bottom line is that the majority of the beef industry is not ready for a mandatory identification program just yet or else the previously proposed program would not have been met with such resistance. That doesn't mean identifying cattle isn't the right thing to do, that producers won't benefit from it and that at some point in the future the industry won't embrace a more structured program. It does mean that currently there are still issues to be agreed upon and that it is basic human nature to not like being told to do something especially when it is the government doing the telling, and they are talking to a group of people who, by nature, are independent thinkers and didn't become successful by listening to someone else.
There are benefits to animal identification that primarily come in the form of helping alleviate safety concerns and improve consumer confidence, opening alternative market options that demand a means of verification, promoting recordkeeping that invariably will make us better managers and, quite honestly, is just the right thing to do if you are a serious producer. Everyone has heard the saying, "Don't throw the baby out with the bath water," and I think this is a prime example. No, we weren't ready for a mandatory program, and I think the industry needs to be commended for recognizing this and not implementing a knee-jerk reaction. Price discovery has yet to be done on individual identification, and it is hard to determine how much something is worth if it is mandatory.
However, I recently attended a meeting pertaining to this very subject. The last speaker on the program, who was from a country that does have an animal identification system, began by thanking the U.S. cattle industry for not implementing a mandatory system, because it made his country more globally competitive. Who are we really competing with - our neighbors, the government or other beef producing countries? This is something for all of us to think about as we implement the current voluntary program and decide what course will be taken in the future. I encourage you to stay informed and learn more about NAIS (www.aphis.usda.gov/traceability/animal_disease_risk/index.shtml)