U.S. lags other major exporters on traceability

Canada’s system of RFID tags and an independent agency to handle traceability may be a model for the U.S., according to some American livestock groups.  |  Barb Mitchell photo

DENVER, Colo. — When it comes to livestock traceability, the United States is an outlier among its competitors in the world beef market.

Among the world’s top 10 beef exporters, only the U.S. and India lack a solid traceability system.

Exporting nations like Canada, Mexico and Australia require individual identification from the farm of origin, ear tags and a central database and most require movement tracking. Most countries’ systems, including Canada’s, have been in place for more than 10 years. They also tout their systems as part of a clean and safe food message.

So far, limited traceability in the U.S. has not been an impediment but that could change and hard-earned markets could be lost in a heartbeat, said Thad Lively of the U.S. Meat Export Federation.

“The fact that the U.S. does not have a nationwide traceability system is not keeping us out of the global marketplace today. We found a solution for China,” he said.

If the Chinese market had been lost, it would not be a big hardship because the U.S. only shipped 3,000 tonnes of beef there last year.

But overall in 2017, the U.S. exported 2.8 billion pounds of beef and if a major animal disease erupted, many foreign buyers would close their borders. That could cost producers more than US$300 per head.

If an important market like Walmart or McDonald’s demanded traceability, that might be enough to push the country toward a program, he said.

“We are living on borrowed time today and are we going to be forced to go to traceability in our beef industry or are we going to get there through a more market-driven approach?” he said.

Many American consumers likely assume traceability already exists and if they are buying branded beef, the product likely has that attribute to assure documentation is available on animal care, health and environmental considerations.

Consumers are less interested in disease trace back but they do want to know more about beef with labels like organic, natural or antibiotic-free beef, said Mark McCully, vice-president of the Certified Angus Beef program.

“It is more about the value-add that comes with traceability systems,” he said.

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