Can Industry Make ID Happen?

No one doubts the need for a national, uniform, food animal identification system. But how to get the job done in a timely fashion raises serious questions.

The U.S. is the world's most reliable supplier of safe food. But it faces serious challenges as competitors vie for global trade superiority using source verification programs.

At the same time, the U.S., in a state of flux over livestock identification (ID), faces a crisis of declining dollars and manpower spent on ID programs as disease eradication programs wind down.

Livestock analysts say those shortcomings could affect disease management capabilities. That could make the U.S. vulnerable to the rapid spread of foreign animal diseases and delayed recovery.

ID Plan Stalls

Four years ago, industry groups gathered in St. Louis for the National Farm Animal Identification Symposium, sponsored by the former Livestock Conservation Institute, now the National Institute for Animal Agriculture (NIAA). The focus was to lay out a plan of action for a national livestock ID program.

Consensus was that a single, uniform program must be developed for disease control, food safety, added value and market access, recalls Glenn Slack, NIAA president and chief executive officer. NIAA's charge is to provide a forum for building consensus and advancing solutions for animal agriculture.

In 1999, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) published a notice to establish a unique numbering system for a national ID program. Then industry efforts on ID stalled, partly due to depressed livestock prices, says Slack.

ID Issue Resurrected

In the first half of 2002, NIAA led efforts to resurrect ID through formation of a 25-member, joint industry-government National Food Animal Identification Task Force.

Preliminary details were spelled out during the NIAA-sponsored ID INFO EXPO held recently in Chicago. A summary draft of each working group's progress toward a national ID plan is to be reviewed in late September by the task force, according to Mark Engle, DVM, vice chair of NIAA's Animal Identification and Information Systems Committee and director of swine health programs for the National Pork Board.

The task force's plan is scheduled to be presented for action at the U.S. Animal Health Association annual meeting in late October in St. Louis. The final implementation plan is to be completed by December, with the goal of having a program in place as soon as is possible, says Engle.

Gaps in Identification

Livestock identification is inconsistent. There is mandatory cattle ID if animals test positive for brucellosis or tuberculosis (TB) — but no national requirements for cattle ID, says John Wiemers, DVM, chair of an interagency working group on animal ID in USDA's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS).

The reduction in livestock diseases has made the job tougher, adds Bob Hillman, Idaho state veterinarian. Manpower and funding have been severely restricted. “As states become free of brucellosis, and now TB, we are no longer required to ID them to test them. The same goes for some swine diseases.”

The result is an increasing number of cases in which multiple herds have to be tested to assure the identity of diseased animals. He declares: “Right now we are testing six herds for TB because of one unidentified steer and testing five herds for swine brucellosis because of one unidentified sow. And that scenario is going on in every state in the country.”

Mandatory Swine ID

The swine industry has had a mandatory ID program since 1988, notes Fred Cunningham, DVM, owner of Northeast Carolina Farms, a 4,000-sow, farrow-to-wean operation in Moyock, NC.

While the swine ID program is working relatively well, one deficiency is the backtag system currently used to identify cull breeding swine, says Cunningham. Retention of backtags can be as low as 15-20% in some instances.

A second need is identification of market hogs back to their last location, rather than to an owner or post office box at the time of delivery to the plant, says Cunningham.

“For slaughter pigs, premises ID is really the way you want to go, because the problems you are trying to deal with originate on the premises, whether it be toxoplasma, trichinae, drug residues or salmonella,” adds James D. McKean, extension swine veterinarian, Iowa State University.

“Individual ID is really up to the pork producer at this point. But I do think we need all the premises identified,” he comments.

A geographically based site number can be married to many different quality assurance or animal health-type certification programs. Then a computer database can sort out the various programs and link producer records to a single premises ID number, explains McKean.

Creating Unity

There was much debate, mostly among cattle interests, regarding the method, traceback, cost, recordkeeping and confidentiality of an ID program.

John Clifford, DVM, with APHIS' Veterinary Services, suggested the group focus on consensus — build a national program based on a unique numbering system.

“We need to begin by identifying high-risk animals, such as breeding animals, because they are the best individuals to count on for a history of what's going on in the herd,” he says.

He also stressed the sense of urgency. “We are at risk. We need to move forward and we need to do so now.”

Farm of origin ID — premises or individual ID — is vital for protection from both domestic and foreign animal diseases, adds Idaho's Hillman.

For more information on NIAA's efforts on ID and other programs, log on to

USDA program requires:

  • Individual animal identification (ID) for all breeding stock moving interstate and a change of ownership;

  • Individual ID of all adult breeding stock at commingling or slaughter;

  • Premises ID of feeder pigs moving interstate and a change of ownership;

  • Group ID of market hogs delivered to slaughter plants back to the owner, and

  • Feeder pig shipments across state lines within a production system to be moved with a valid swine production health plan, which must be approved by both states and the records kept by the premises for three years.

Other ID Programs

In Canada, a mandatory cattle ID program went into effect July 1. It requires that all cattle be identified at the herd of origin by one of 29 approved bar-coded, plastic dangle tags or two electronic button tags. Identification is recorded at the packing plant. There are no movement restrictions.

Julie Stitt, manager of the Canadian Cattle Information Agency (CCIA) that oversees the program, says 12 million tags reportedly have been sold by manufacturers. Canada has 13 million cattle. In tests of the program, there have been 18 successful attempts to trace back tags to the herd of origin using the CCIA ID number, she reports.

The program was launched because animal health issues and the percentage of cattle being identified had declined dramatically, says Stitt.

European Union and Japanese mandatory animal identification programs have developed rapidly, and were borne out of crisis from foot-and-mouth disease and BSE problems, explains USDA's Wiemers.

Both Australia and New Zealand have voluntary ID programs aimed at cattle, using strictly electronic ID systems.

Developing countries are adopting advanced technology to move past the U.S. in several areas, and the same thing could happen with livestock ID, harming export markets, warns Mark Armentrout of AgInfoLink, a Colorado-based information management company.

Identification or source verification is a key element in providing proof of sound production practices for foreign meat buyers, says Phil Seng, president and chief executive officer, U.S. Meat Export Federation.

That proof equals trust, and trust transcends food safety. It's what's needed to sell net meat importers on your products, he says.