Export competition driver for revived US traceability push

Jon Condon, 10/08/2011

A new proposed rule aimed at improving the US’s ability to trace animal disease outbreaks through a mandatory traceability system would also help broaden access to export beef markets, US Department of Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack told a press conference yesterday.

“This system, in our view, puts us in a much better competitive circumstance,” Mr Vilsack said while announcing the proposed rule.

“Other countries have been using traceability as a way to gain a market advantage. We believe this takes that market advantage away.”

He identified Australia as one country that used the 2003 discovery of a US case of BSE, and the ensuing bans that it promoted from lucrative export markets like Japan and Korea, to increase market share in Asia by “trumpeting an effective traceability program.”

The US beef industry had since made a substantial recovery in exports to Asia, partly based on currency movements, but the lack of an organised traceability system had limited potential gains, industry stakeholders have repeatedly claimed.

Meatingplace.com yesterday said reporters on the call, expressed scepticism about the new, “more flexible” interpretation of the failed, voluntary National Animal Identification System and its ability to improve the US’s ability to pinpoint animal disease events.

Rather than ask for cattle producers to register their premises, as NAIS did, the new rule focuses on identification of animals or groups of animals through federally-approved devices, during interstate movement.

Unlike the Australian ID system model, there would be no premises registration. While mandatory, the new program would only apply to animals moving interstate, as these animals are seen as the ‘biggest risk’ for spreading disease nationwide, according to a March USDA report giving an initial outline of the proposal.

Such a system would leave gaping holes in traceability principles on non-identified cattle being slaughtered or relocated within state boundaries, and would only identify the state of origin, analysts have suggested.

Before cattle are moved and sold across US state lines, they would be affixed with a tag bearing a code indicating the state or American Indian tribe of origin and a unique numeric identifier. The state or tribe where the animal originated, rather that the individual producer, would then be responsible for maintaining detailed information of the animal's origin.

The proposal would replace the seven-year-old voluntary NAIS program that only attracted about 30pc of US beef producers, making the system of little value, in practical terms.

“We would not be proposing this rule if we weren’t confident that it would do a better job than in the past in responses to disease outbreaks,” Mr Vilsack told the briefing. He noted that BSE investigations, for example, had taken as much as 150 says. The new system should cut animal-disease investigations to a matter of days or in more complex cases, weeks, Meatingplace.com reported.

Together with quality and pricing attributes, traceability assurance should make US meat exports more saleable, and that would help pay for the new system’s estimated US$14 million annual operating cost, Secretary Vilsack said.

He told an earlier House Agriculture Committee hearing that the current NAIS system “did not provide us the certainty and the guarantee that the new system will.”

“We think we're going to get much more acceptance from this effort, and that should reassure our trading partners,” he said.

The USDA’s announcement is certain to arouse concern from the US production sector, given the waves of opposition evident during listening sessions held across the US on the proposed NAIS system two years ago. Many ranchers feared the rules would be too costly, too intrusive and could increase potential liabilities.

Producer and meatpacker representative groups showed initial support for the USDA’s new proposed program.  The National Cattlemen's Beef Association said it generally supported the development of a traceability program and would analyse the specific proposal before commenting about its contents.

One meat packing industry source agreed that a comprehensive traceability system was important to expanding US exports of beef to the European Union, which had “so many information requirements for imports that traceability – while not expressly required – is necessary nevertheless.”

A mandatory system could enable more US packers to access that high-value market, as well as potentially increase trade in markets like Japan and China, he said.

Militant beef lobby group, R-Calf USA said the rules were too invasive, and would shift producers away from (indelible) hot-iron branding in favour of ear tags, which could easily be removed.


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