OVERTON - Even though federally mandated animal ID systems may a year or more away, it is in farmers and ranchers' self-interest to start voluntarily tagging their cattle electronically now, said one of the featured speakers at a recent East Texas forage and beef field day. The primary reasons producers should adopt the technology now are disease surveillance and limiting the potential for liability if there is a disease outbreak, said Tim Niedecken, information director for eMERGE Interactive, one of several Texas companies marketing electronic ID tags and related services in anticipation of the pending federal mandatory rules.
"Having animals ID'ed won't increase your liability, it will decrease it," Niedecken said, speaking to the more than 200 East Texas farmers and ranchers who attended a field day held April 15 at the Texas A&M University System Agricultural Research and Extension Center at Overton.
Beef industry leaders and government officials have been discussing individual animal ID for years. Both groups agree the end result will probably involve electronic ID tags of one type or another and a federal mandate. The single case of bovine spongiform encephalopathy (more commonly called "mad cow disease") in Washington state last December put individual animal ID on the fast track. Some industry experts were expecting the first stage of the animal ID infrastructure - - the assigning of ID numbers to either livestock operators or to their premises - - to begin this summer.
However, details implementation and a lack of federal funding have delayed the first stage from a few months to a year, said Niedecken, who serves on the National Identification Development Team. The NIDT is comprised of approximately 100 animal and livestock industry professionals representing over 70 associations, organizations and government agencies.
There are a number of issues delaying the finalization of the plan, Niedecken said. Among these issues the 10 different bills in U.S. Congress on animal ID plus various state legislative players and market forces, such as WalMart and McDonald's. Also involved are such agencies as the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Perhaps the most serious delaying issue is the question of who is going to pay for the animal ID infrastructure.
"Will the government pay for it? That's undetermined. Some say that as it's a national food safety issue, then government should pay for it. But the other side says, if the government pays for it, there will be a lot of strings attached. The right answer? I don't know," Niedecken said.
Niedecken was sure, he said, that it was in the best interests of producers and the industry overall to get on-board now. Dr. Jason Cleere, Texas Cooperative Extension beef cattle specialist, agreed.
"From an individual producer's standpoint, having an animal ID system in place could prevent him from being blamed for something he didn't do, such as drug residues and other food safety issues, which are caught at the processing plant. Plus, accurate records are important to maintain beef quality," Cleere said. "From the standpoint of disease outbreaks such as BSE, an animal ID system could save the industry billions of dollars."
By conservative estimates, the mad cow disease incident knocked $14 billion of the value of the national cattle herd in 10 days. A good part of the devaluation came from loss of exports. Fed cattle prices dropped from $91 or $92 per hundredweight to $74 or $74 in a few days, according to Niedecken.
"That works out to a loss of about $140 per head overnight for every cow; $140 gone, overnight out of your pocket," Niedecken said. Later, as it was learned that the stricken cow came from Canada, prices recovered somewhat, but verifying this fact and tracking the cow's movements took weeks.
"With an animal ID system in place, this could have theoretically taken 48 hours instead of 48 days," Cleere said.
Also, if neighboring producers would have had an animal ID system in place they could have been saved the trouble of quarantines, Cleere noted.
More information on animal ID can be found at the U.S. Animal ID Program site at http://usaip.