U.S. producers struggle to resolve traceability debate

NEW ORLEANS, La. — Working out an efficient traceability system for the United States beef industry is a priority for government leaders there.

Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue told beef producers they must promote their products and provide full information on all stages of the production process because consumers want to know more.

“You know that many of our customers internationally are asking for those kinds of things. The better data we can provide them, the better we can do from a sales perspective by telling them we don’t have anything to hide,” he said at the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association convention in New Orleans held Jan. 29-Feb.1. The convention was attended by more than 8,000 people.

Greg Ibach, undersecretary for marketing and regulatory programs at the U.S. Department of Agriculture, said he wants the 20-year-old debate resolved.

“We are almost at the same point in the beef industry as we were then,” he said during a health-of-animals committee meeting at the convention.

A farmer from Nebraska, Ibach understands the diversity of the cattle business but he is also aware of customer requests.

“They are asking those questions and we will fail if we are not able to address their questions,” he said.

The government will not mandate which traceability technology to use because producers should determine what works best for them, he said. The USDA could provide basic infrastructure to capture data and public-private partnerships are possible.

“I want to have a system in place where USDA doesn’t throttle technology and its development,” he said.

Jennifer Houston, incoming president of NCBA, owns an auction in Tennessee and is a strong proponent of traceability in the event of a serious disease.

“My market could be shut down immediately. The question is how long will it be shut down, how many of my producers might be affected and how big a radius are we talking about?” she said.

Having more information could reopen markets sooner and assure export customers a contagious disease is under control.

Her market uses electronic scans that are entered into sales records but she has customers who still ask for paper records.

Traceability pilot projects have started in Kansas, Florida and Texas in the last year. While some aspects differ, the operators agree they want a cost effective, robust disease-tracking system, a third-party database that ensures confidentiality and a reasonable way to retire numbers when animals die.

Tracking needs to be electronic and the technology should be able to read low- and high-frequency radio signals.

Rapid traceback is critical, said Brandon Depenbusch of the Kansas Cattle Trace pilot project. A bovine tuberculosis case in the state took two years for a full traceback.

“We don’t have two years for disease traceability if we want to investigate something like highly contagious foot-and-mouth disease,” he said.

Texas beef groups decided last fall it was time to advance traceability.

“A lot of people in the industry recognize the U.S. is behind several other countries. Regardless of that competition between countries for access to foreign markets, we are behind on being able to quickly trace back on disease outbreaks,” said Ross Wilson of the Texas Cattle Feeders Association.

The Texas program involves all state beef groups and auctions and four packers. They also want value-added components that could be useful for producers for herd management or marketing.

“Leaders of the industry will have to lock themselves in a room and make some difficult decisions or we will be here 10 years from now having these same discussions,” said Wilson.

“It is not rocket science, but it is damned difficult politically,” he said.

South Dakota implemented a state program in 2013. Its biggest issue has been tracing cases of bovine tuberculosis, said state veterinarian Dustin Oedekoven.

Last June, a couple fat cattle turned up positive. They had no official identification and the only description was “black steer.” The cattle have been traced to 99 potential source herds in five states.

“We are still looking. We know there is probably a herd where this originated,” he said.

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