Cattlemen Need Straight Talk on Animal ID

Editorial from Mike John, chairman of the National Cattlemen's Beef Association animal ID committee.

Published on: Nov 23, 2005

By Mike John

The National Cattlemen’s Beef Association formed its Animal ID Commission because NCBA members saw an increasingly dire need for a workable animal movement database for the U.S. cattle industry as part of a national animal identification system. As chairman, I have spent many hours working with my fellow commission members to move us toward a voluntary, producer-led solution to this issue.

Advancing a producer-led solution to animal ID has not been easy. There are many obstacles and roadblocks to overcome, and we still have tons of work to do. But I remain more convinced than ever that we are on the right track, and I am proud of NCBA for taking on this responsibility.

Perhaps one of the best indications that we are making progress is the fact that critics are coming out of the woodwork, hurling every rumor and falsehood they can conjure up. It was once said, "the critic is a man who prefers indolence of opinion to the trials of action," and I can’t think of a better example than some of the rhetoric that is being tossed around on Animal ID. Rather than come up with any constructive ideas or models of their own, critics of a producer-led solution simply turn to negative attacks. I would like to address some of the misinformation they are spreading:

"NCBA’s just doing this to make money."

On the contrary, NCBA never intends to make a dime from the Animal ID solution we are proposing. In fact, we will never recover any of the time and resources we have already invested in it. But we are willing to incur this cost because our members know they need a workable solution that protects their confidentiality and makes their businesses stronger and more competitive. NCBA believes that maintaining a strong and profitable cattle industry is the reason we exist.

"USDA is handing this issue off to the NCBA."

Neither USDA nor any other agency has asked NCBA to develop a national animal ID system. Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns has simply said that he supports a national animal movement tracking database that meets the following principles:

·        The system must be able to allow tracking of animals from point of origin to processing within 48 hours without unnecessary burden to producers and other stakeholders.

·        The system must be flexible enough to utilize existing technologies and incorporate new identification technologies as they are developed.

·        Animal movement data should be maintained in a private system that can be readily accessed when necessary by state and federal animal health authorities, and:

·        The system's architecture must be developed without unduly increasing the size and role of government.

At the direction of its members, NCBA has stepped up to create a producer-led database to meet each of these principles.  Perhaps if our critics spent more time trying to build a solution instead of tearing this one down, they might have something constructive to offer as well.

"Cattlemen will be better served by a government system."

This argument reflects a fundamental difference between cattlemen that believe in free enterprise, and those that want the government to manage our businesses and our markets. But let’s talk about some practical reasons why a producer-led system will better serve cattle producers. Confidentiality and producer ownership of data were identified by NCBA members as top priorities. Under the plan NCBA is developing, producers will always own their data and it can never be taken or used by any other party for any other purpose. Government agencies will have access to the data if needed for an animal health emergency, but no other access to the data will be authorized. If the database should undergo a change of managing vendors, the outgoing vendor would have no ownership claim to the data whatsoever.

The government cannot protect producer data in this same manner. If you don’t believe me, take farm subsidies for example. Activists have plastered this data all over the Internet, for all the world to see. Do you want the same thing to happen with your livestock data?

"If NCBA’s plan moves forward, it will have too much industry control."

NCBA does not plan to operate or control the national animal movement database once it is operational. Instead, we plan to turn it over to a non-profit, multi-species consortium that is independent of NCBA. With beta-testing of the animal movement database planned later this year, the time is rapidly approaching when this solution can be handed over to an independent entity.

Despite rumors to the contrary, participation in the database will not require membership in NCBA, any type of association with NCBA, or use of any particular animal ID tagging method, technology, or vendor. While a single database must be used to make the system effective, individual producers will have many options to choose from in terms of identifying and marking their livestock, and managing their data for their own use.

"Vendors will make all the money from this system."

The technology partners chosen by the Animal ID Commission for this system are for-profit entities, and they certainly will make a profit if the system is ultimately successful. But they have considerable resources invested in this plan, and they will not so much as break even unless the system works properly and they manage it for a long period of time. Remember, once this system is in the hands of multi-species consortium, the technology partners will serve at the pleasure of this independent body.

"We don’t really need animal ID."

If anyone still believes this, they simply are not paying attention to the industry. If you don’t believe that source verification is important, ask McDonald’s why they are paying a premium for it. If you don’t believe animal ID is important to our international trading partners, just look at the struggle we have endured to get market access back after being derailed by a single case of BSE. While we do not feel that animal ID should be mandated by the government, we believe the marketplace is already handing down an economic mandate that will provide cattlemen opportunities. To reap these benefits, cattlemen need a solution right now, not in three to five years.

This is only a small sampling of the issues we are tackling on behalf of the nation’s cattle producers. But more information is available, and NCBA is the place to turn for straight talk – not rumors or innuendo - on animal ID. You can learn much more by visiting: www.beefusa.org/AnimalID.aspx, or calling 1-866-BEEFUSA.   

Mike John is a cattleman from Huntsville, Missouri. He is chairman of NCBA’s Animal ID Commission and president-elect of NCBA.