Even across the haze of three decades as a journalist, I can still vividly recall a conversation I had early in my career with one of the meat industry’s most notable executives. "Look, I don’t want my name attached to this comment, because I’ll get crucified by my colleagues," he told me in his office at a large, famous processing company. "But the truth is, the Federal Meat Inspection Act is the best thing that ever happened to this industry." He explained that the industry could not police itself, that it needed the authority of the federal government to establish benchmark standards for sanitation and food safety that apply to all meat companies engaged in interstate commerce. "One bad company out there hurts the reputation of all of us," he said. Everyone in this industry knows this is still true and always will be.
These words come to mind when I think about the continuing controversy over U.S.D.A.’s National Animal Identification System (N.A.I.S.). The plan for a nationwide, comprehensive animal-tracking system was born out of the B.S.E. crisis that devastated Europe’s beef industry in the 1990s. In the wake of the disaster European Union authorities instituted an effective traceback system as a means to help contain and control any subsequent livestock disease outbreaks.
Clever European processors have built on this system and use it as a marketing tool. As early as 2003, one Danish pork company was printing an Internet URL on its meat labels that consumers could use to find the farm from which the hogs came that produced the pork in the package. Further Internet links provided a biography of the farmer, a map to the farm and a form for scheduling a visit.
I can already hear the dismissive exhales and see the eyes rolling among some of my friends who are in the livestock business here in the U.S. Why on earth would you want to invite the world to your farm or ranch or feedlot? Don’t you know that only the activists and animal liberation terrorists will show up?
Okay, so we don’t have to pave an electronic path so the world can reach our door. Animal traceback and the N.A.I.S. aren’t about that anyway. Some producers worry that a federally managed mandatory traceback system, which requires that every producer register each of their animals with the government, sets up, in effect, a federal invasion of privacy, a means for the government to control private property. There’s merit in the claim; the government hasn’t always been the most responsible manager of individual rights. But there’s also precedent to show that registration does not necessarily mean loss of privacy. Everyone who legally owns an automobile registers it with the government, yet the government does not tell us when we can sell our cars or buy a new one or what kind of car we must own. Firearm registration, while controversial among some, does not give the government the power to confiscate legal weapons that are legally owned, displayed and discharged. When a gun is used unlawfully, its registration number can help solve the crime, which is in the best interest of society.
The question at the heart of the traceback matter is this: Is the greater good served by federally mandated mandatory traceback? Many, and probably most, meat processors, who by current law are on the legal and financial hook should there be a recall, believe it is. Understandably, they want to spread the responsibility throughout the chain, especially since science has shown time and again that pathogens arrive at meat plants with the livestock. But even ignoring the touchy matter of recall and adulterant liability, the fact that an increasing number of foreign customers for U.S. meat want or require a traceback system for access to their markets shows that a fully implemented N.A.I.S. would be a boon to the industry. As Gary Brester, an agricultural economist at Montana State University told me the other day, "Exports are the growth industry" for meat.
Brester helped prepare a newly released study for U.S.D.A.’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service on the costs and cost-offsets of N.A.I.S. He found that if beef exports alone returned to pre-2003 levels (the year the U.S. lost significant export markets due to the discovery of a B.S.E.-infected cow in Washington state), the revenue those exports produce would more than cover the cost of N.A.I.S. for all species – beef, pork, poultry, lamb, even horsemeat. In a different calculation, his figures show that if beef consumption at home increased just one percent from where it is now, that growth, too, would be enough to cover the cost of N.A.I.S.
"If consumers think beef is safer because it’s trackable," he told me, "then it’s safer. We’ll always have a beef industry, but it could be a lot smaller if we don’t give consumers what they want. People want to know their food is safe, and they are increasingly equating traceback systems with safety."
He’s right about that. In light of Brester’s data showing that a relatively modest increase in beef exports or in domestic beef consumption would take care of costs incurred by the industry from N.A.I.S., producers who still resist the system on grounds of the privacy issue must ask themselves if their insistence that no one has a right to know about their livestock but themselves is worth risking the loss of consumer confidence.
My old friend the processing executive taught me that while the Federal Meat Inspection Act certainly took away some of a processor’s right to operate independently, the trade-off was worth it. For one thing, the Act brought about a better meat industry. For another, it paved the way toward safer meat -- and that’s a road worth paving, I believe we all agree.
Sometimes it’s worth losing a little to gain a lot. When it comes to the N.A.I.S., I think this is especially true.