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It's far from a stampede, but there's progress reported on plans to implement a comprehensive, federal tracking system for cattle and other live animals.Conceived in 2002, and put on a fast track after the country's first mad cow disease scare in December 2003, the plan is designed to head off potentially crippling meat safety and sourcing problems before they can disrupt the supply chain.Additional

It's far from a stampede, but there's progress reported on plans to implement a comprehensive, federal tracking system for cattle and other live animals.

Conceived in 2002, and put on a fast track after the country's first mad cow disease scare in December 2003, the plan is designed to head off potentially crippling meat safety and sourcing problems before they can disrupt the supply chain.

Additional efforts are under way at the state level to link animal tracking systems designed primarily for safety and disease prevention to meat marketing programs that may ultimately add value for retailers and consumers.

The signature traceability effort -- the U.S. Department of Agriculture's National Animal Identification System -- continues to take shape, even as the agency and the livestock industry spar over details related to funding, data confidentiality and system flexibility.

NAIS is envisioned as a state-federal-industry program that will be able to track animal movements from birth to slaughter for the main purpose of disease tracking. It would use a database consisting of premises and animal identifiers and incorporate electronic tracking tools to monitor and record the movements of animals as they move through the system. The goal would be to rapidly identify the source of an outbreak and ensure that any spread is quickly contained.

Early this month, USDA took steps to nudge NAIS along, unveiling a multi-year draft strategic plan for implementation. It calls for stakeholders to identify premises and animals according to preliminary program standards by January 2008, and proposes that full recording of defined animal movements be in place by January 2009. USDA will be soliciting comments on the draft plan through June 6. After that, the agency will proceed to rulemaking.

One issue sure to be hotly debated is data confidentiality. In February, the board of directors of the National Cattlemen's Beef Association proposed making the database at the core of NAIS one that is controlled by producers, not the government. That proposal runs counter to the USDA's vision of having the system under its control as a way of ensuring that information can be readily retrieved in the event of a crisis.

Allen Bright, chairman of NCBA's animal identification commission and a feedlot operator from Antioch, Neb., said data on who controls what, and where, need to stay in the hands of the cattle industry.

"Our private database proposal comes down mostly to a confidentiality issue," Bright said. "We envision the possibility of access being sought by groups under the Freedom of Information Act. But we also think our proposal to keep it private would enhance the system.

"We think we can do a better and cheaper job of maintaining the database than the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, and that by keeping it private we'll also free USDA to focus its efforts and money on other things. The database amounts to private business information, and we think there are a lot of precedents for industries and businesses not disclosing such information."

More important, Bright insisted keeping the database under the control of a nonprofit consortium of industry players representing multiple species won't water down its effectiveness. USDA and other governmental agencies, such as state veterinarians who are often the first responders, would still have ready access in the event of a looming crisis that needed to be stemmed.

NCBA supports the NAIS concept as a way to add another layer of safety and predictability to the beef supply chain, Bright added.

"This would add another dimension to the current disease surveillance and intervention programs that would allow them to function more effectively," he said. "The more we can do to make our herds healthier, have less loss, make food more abundant, safe and cheap, the better. Layered on top of intervention programs that processors have in place, it will help ensure that food that gets to the consumer's table is as wholesome as it can be."

The American Meat Institute, which represents the meatpacking industry, sees NAIS as a valuable complement to extensive safety procedures that packers already have. Combined, both give food retailers and consumers assurance that products in the supermarket meat case are as safe as possible, said Mark Dopp, vice president and general counsel for AMI, Arlington, Va.

"Only animals that pass an antemortem inspection at the packing plant are used to produce beef," Dopp said. "But we favor this mandatory animal identification system over the patchwork system that exists now as a way to track the exact source of animals that arrive at the packing plant."

While NAIS is designed to head off problems well before meat reaches the supermarket, and is expressly billed as an animal identification rather than a meat identification program, some livestock producers are seizing opportunities to merge the two.

For instance, a South Dakota program signed into law in March lays the groundwork for state beef producers to voluntarily participate in a state-administered cattle identification and tracking program. Beef that's from cattle born, raised and processed in South Dakota according to detailed standards, and verifiable by a program utilizing electronic ear tags for tracking, will be capable of being marketed to the consumer as South Dakota Certified Beef.

Unlike the nationwide NAIS program, the South Dakota program will enable consumers to verify purchases of state-certified beef products. Using a code on the package purchased at the supermarket, consumers will be able to visit an Internet site to learn where and when the animal was born, which feedlots it passed through and which meatpacking plant it ended up.

Mary Lehecka Nelson, communications manager for the South Dakota Office of Economic Development, said the state-certified beef program was inspired in part by interest expressed by both consumers and upscale supermarkets in buying beef whose source could be verified.

"We've gotten a lot of e-mail from consumers saying they'd be willing to pay a premium for state-produced beef that they know was cared for in such and such a way, is safe and offers a premium eating experience," she says. "This is a way for producers and processors in the state to open new markets."

The state is now drafting standards for those in the supply chain who want to participate in the program. It's estimated that some 850 farmers and ranchers have expressed an interest. A potential pitfall, however, is that the state now has comparatively few packing plants that could participate.

The South Dakota program is an example of the kind of downstream marketing potential that animal identification and tracking programs like the NAIS have, said John Lawrence, Iowa State University extension livestock economist and director of the Iowa Beef Center. He compares government establishment of a comprehensive animal identification and tracking infrastructure with the interstate highway system the government built primarily for national defense purposes, but which ended up contributing to the development of interstate commerce.

"The potential implications of programs like NAIS are significant in that they may provide opportunities for producers to move beyond the simple commodity world," Lawrence said. "Once the infrastructure is in place, there will be opportunities for the public and business to use it for differentiating their products, making product claims and providing more accountability in the system."