Getting a nationwide group of notoriously independent and private people to voluntarily turn over information to the government can be a difficult obstacle to overcome. USDA made a major push to identify and track livestock in 2007, back when South Dakota native Bruce Knight was undersecretary for marketing and regulatory programs.
The "primary emphasis is about supporting animal health," and supporting producers, Knight said at the time. Some livestock producers jumped on board, but many did not.
Now, Greg Ibach, USDA's current undersecretary for marketing and regulatory programs is pushing hard once again - hoping to build on the vision that his predecessor outlined. He hopes producers will recognize the cost-benefit analysis that traceability presents and that food companies expect.
"If we can get to the point where we help producers understand the risks and the benefits that might be associated with traceability, I think that they will see the value in it for them and they'll be more apt to participate," he said during an interview with Agri-Pulse.
Ibach makes no secret about advancing animal disease traceability being a personal priority. For about 10 years now, his Nebraska ranch has been participating in a USDA Process Verified Program, which he says allows his cattle to qualify for a value-added program.
USDA's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service recently announced its "four overarching goals for advancing animal disease traceability." The release highlighted USDA's goal to push for electronic data sharing between states and the federal government, the use of electronic ID tags, enhancing birth-to-slaughter tracking ability, and creating a system where animal health certificates are electronically shared with state health officials.
"I'm not expecting something out of producers that we haven't been willing to do on our ranch," he said. (Ibach withdrew from the ranch's management and marketing decisions to serve as a USDA undersecretary.)
Ibach's roots in the beef industry also give him an inside look at what has been the most challenging crowd in the traceability conversation. The concept is mostly in place in the poultry and pork sectors, where more vertical integration provides an easier path to greater traceability. But in the beef sector, it's not uncommon for the same animal to change locations several times between birth and harvest, typically beginning at a smaller cow-calf operation and ending at a larger feedlot before the trip to the packing house.
There's a handful of potential selling points to get producers on board with traceability: International trade partners like China are already seeking a system, and agreeing to participate now in a voluntary program could save producers from a mandatory program down the road. But one of the biggest benefits may be protecting animal health.
"The landscape surrounding animal disease traceability has changed dramatically in the past decade, and producers across the nation recognize that a comprehensive system is the best protection against a devastating disease outbreak like foot-and-mouth disease" Ibach said in a release. "We have a responsibility to these producers and American agriculture as a whole to make animal disease traceability what it should be - a modern system that tracks animals from birth to slaughter using affordable technology that allows USDA to quickly trace sick and exposed animals to stop disease spread."
However, there are mixed opinions about how a traceability program should be run and how dollars could - or should - change hands.
Nevil Speer chairs the National Institute for Animal Agriculture, which facilitates the Cattle Traceability Working Group. He told Agri-Pulse the issue of a state-run data system versus a private sector managed system comes up in working group discussions, and "it's almost like you can't win on either side of that."
On one hand, a government-operated system could shield producers from profit-taking through subscriptions or transaction fees. However, such a system would mean government control of data and could be subject to the Freedom of Information Act. And the fees collected through a private system could be used to fund the program.
There's also the issue of technology. Traceability can be accomplished several ways, and USDA has not pledged a preference for any specific type.
One way the industry could figure that out would be through pilot projects like one underway in Kansas. There, 55,000 high-frequency electronic ID tags are deployed with the intent of tracking three main data points: tag number of the animal, the location where the ID detection took place, and the date and time of reading. Matt Teagarden, the CEO of the Kansas Livestock Association, said the fact that the state is such a big player in the industry made it a good candidate for a pilot.
"It's being designed to be scalable not only to the cattle in Kansas but potentially broader outside of Kansas, outside the country," he said. "Our intent is that the system could accommodate the entire industry."
He adds that, if the system can get significant buy-in from the industry, there might not have to be a mandate to get an effective system put in place. That, Teagarden admits, is optimistic.
And if a "critical mass" of producers don't participate, Speer said the nationwide animal health advantages lose their effectiveness. Nevertheless, he thinks USDA's push "represents a tipping point" and will take the initiative further than previous attempts.