The industry’s debate and negotiation over mandatory country-of-origin labeling, which in some ways reopened the old packer-producer divide – livestock producers tended to favor mCOOL while packers did not — may prove to be but a prelude. The bigger, sharper and potentially angrier battle could be over government-instituted animal identification.
Already Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack, only a few months into his tenure, has made positive comments about a mandatory animal ID program. Though he has stopped short of fully endorsing such a program, he told a congressional hearing at the end of March that he is "supportive of the effort to make sure that we have an identification system that will allow us to prevent and/or mitigate problems."
Mandatory animal ID grew out of livestock diseases crises of the 1990s and early 2000s. European governments established comprehensive mandatory ID tracking programs in the wake of the huge bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) and hoof-and-mouth disease outbreaks that devastated the European cattle industry, especially Great Britain’s. When BSE was officially identified in a Canadian bovine in May 2003 and then in the United States in December of that year, calls started to mandate an identification and tracking system for livestock in North America to trace back and better control BSE and other types of outbreaks before they spread widely.
In general, meat packers and processors support animal ID. In a statement provided to MEATPOULTRY.com, Dave Ray, spokesman for the American Meat Institute, said: "AMI supports a mandatory animal ID system. Such a system would be an important component in identifying, quickly isolating, and tracking animals in the event certain diseases are identified in the U.S. The ability to quickly identify and trace back animals is critical to shoring up consumer confidence when such issues arise. Additionally, animal ID can be an important tool in maintaining and enhancing our export markets, as many of our competitors are developing or have developed similar systems. A comprehensive animal ID program should contain the three essential components: (1) It should be mandatory; (2) USDA should have proper authority and resources; and (3) it should include an option for age verification."
Jeremy Russell, spokesman for the National Meat Association, said NMA generally agrees, although it is not insistent that an animal ID program be mandatory. "Our position is somewhat flexible," he told MEATPOULTRY.com. "It can be mandatory or voluntary — as long as it works. That’s what we’re most interested in, a program that is effective."
Livestock producers oppose government-instituted animal ID, however, in a range from somewhat opposed to adamantly against. Both the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association and the U.S. Cattlemen’s Association argue against government animal ID, saying a program is in effect a government registration of private property and thus a kind of invasion of privacy. Bill Bullard, executive director of the Ranchers-Cattlemen Action Legal Fund, United Stockgrowers of America, or R-CALF USA, met with Secretary Vilsack last February to say that his organization might settle for an identification program limited to breeding cattle.
NMA’s Russell said his group hopes animal ID does not reopen old wounds between packers and producers, especially in these times of economic difficulty. "We purposely kept our animal ID policy flexible so that we can work with the livestock groups and keep the conversation going," he said. "We’d like to see an animal identification program for all the reasons that it makes sense for the industry in terms of food and livestock safety. But it’s not worth going to war over with another industry segment."