A new research study sponsored by U.S.D.A.’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service suggests that if U.S. beef consumption increased a mere 1%, the extra revenue generated would be enough to pay for the entire National Animal Identification System. Or, if beef exports rose from current levels back to pre-2003 volumes, that increase would cover the cost of N.A.I.S. as well.

"In fact, the bottom line is that if we are just able to get to pre-2003 levels with beef exports alone, that could cover the cost for identification systems for all species," Gary Brester, a professor of agricultural economics at Montana State University and one of the study’s authors, told MEATPOULTRY.com. "I found it quite remarkable, really."

Both scenarios are realistic, Brester said. A 1% increase in domestic consumption "is certainly within the range of increases that have occurred in the past. In the last decade alone we’ve seen swings both upwards and downwards of more than that." However, he called exports U.S. beef’s "real growth industry," adding: "If we end up increasing exports of beef, when those prices start to rise as a result we see increases in demand for pork and poultry as well. They become the filler meats."

Brester was joined by agricultural economists from Kansas State, Colorado State and Michigan State universities. The team estimated the costs of three different types of N.A.I.S. programs based on 30%, 50%, 70% and 90% adoption levels, and considered the costs and benefits of N.A.I.S. on beef, pork, poultry, sheep and even horses. After the project was completed, an independent group of economists and scientists reviewed the data and submitted comments.

The nationwide N.A.I.S. has been under discussion, planning and implementation for several years, dating back to the B.S.E. crisis in Europe in the early-to-mid 1990s. One of the European Union’s responses to the crisis was to institute a comprehensive livestock-tracking program so that diseased animals could be found and culled from the herd before they entered the food supply. Calls for a similar system to be installed in the U.S. immediately following the discovery, in December 2003, of a B.S.E.-infected cow in Washington state. (Since then, two other B.S.E.-positive cattle have been found.) That discovery caused a widespread collapse in the market for U.S. beef exports, though most of that trade has returned.

The N.A.I.S. has been controversial among beef producers, however. More than the cost such a system might bring to producers, some worry that a government system requiring registration of livestock – of private property, they say -- is tantamount to a federal invasion of privacy. Brester said the study did not attempt to address the privacy issue. "What we said was, ‘Here is information that you might make a reasoned judgment from.’"

But he did opine on the issue of beef safety. "If consumers think beef is safer because it’s trackable," he told MEATPOULTRY.com, "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." The issue thus becomes, he said, a question of, "Are these added costs and loss of privacy going to be offset by increased economic gains?"