No cow left behind
There are two visible programs that call for greater accountability from livestock producers: animal identification and country-of-origin labeling (COOL). Although their stated purposes are very different, the final outcome may well be the same. There are some things to fight and some to welcome and embrace but we rarely have the wisdom to know the difference.
The first reaction to COOL is "big deal" as the retail meat counters are giving shoppers very little information on where the meat originated and the shoppers seem to be just fine with that. The original intent of creating a marketing program that promotes U.S. beef has been lost in the complaints of packers and retailers, that labeling each lot differently would be too much of a hassle, the cost of printing origin information on packages too great. I'm sure there is a cattle producer out there who still believes that the shopper will select his product over that of mixed origin because of quality, patriotism and food safety, but I haven't heard from him in a while.
What I have heard is resistance to comply with paperwork and intrusive regulation that identifies each meat producing entity. Without knowing it, we've shifted to animal identification--a whole 'nother ball game. Animal ID is a "voluntary" USDA program to trace back to producers when there is an emergency such as a disease outbreak or terrorist act. It seems strange that those who most strongly favor COOL are the ones who most strongly oppose Animal ID. Both are programs that make your product known to the supply chain and the government, if they wish to inquire.
The National Cattlemen's Beef Association has finally taken a stand on COOL with a simple argument that animals coming in from other countries should be marked; therefore, the U.S. producers should have to do nothing. That's a little too logical to fly in regulatory circles, but it may place the burden on the packer until retail and wholesale sectors team up to pass the pain upstream.
I think it's all going to come down to accountability, from conception to consumption or piglet to plate. The enforcement won't be based solely on regulatory compliance; it will be based on the ability to sell the animal. If you have pets and you don't transport them across state lines, no problem, but if you put your livestock into the channels of trade then there has to be a "trail" that is created and maintained all the way to the supermarket counter or the fast-food drive-through.
The livestock marketers (sale barns) have been the champions of the small cattle producers and they are still determining if they want to take on the paperwork and handling to be the first point of documentation. If so, they will have to be paid, directly or indirectly, for their service.
Another thing that we've got to stop dancing around is that the USDA Animal Identification program will become mandatory. It can't work any other way. The registration of your farm or ranch is the beginning, then the tagging of animals and tracking to the consumer. This can become automated with some additional work and cost for producers but it is not the 90 percent of volume that will be the challenge for public health officials, it will be the nebulous few who have a high likelihood of spreading a disease. If we don't have a national emergency with foot and mouth disease or terrorism, this may take a long time to implement, but it will come as sure as green grass in springtime.
I'm not really a pessimist about the outcome of COOL or Animal ID. The producer who does his or her job well is the one who should benefit. Those who are haphazard in their production will have the most difficulty. The stamp of USDA inspected and "a product of the United States" should signify pride and quality but it may not gain a premium in the marketplace.
Those who seem most opposed to the intrusion of government in their lives appear also to be those who are least likely to work with the system to have their viewpoint heard. That means the voices of protest are just background noise for those who come together to decide what's best for their industry. Paul Hitch, cattleman from the Oklahoma panhandle, who lost his battle with cancer last year, said at an NCBA meeting: "Those who show up make the rules."
Editor's Note: This is Ken Root's 35th year as an agricultural reporter. He grew up on a small farm in central Oklahoma and started his career as a vocational agriculture teacher. He worked in Oklahoma, Kansas and Missouri as a broadcaster and was the original host of AgriTalk. He has also been the executive director of the National AgriChemical Retailers Association in Washington, D.C. and the National Association of Farm Broadcasters in Kansas City. Ken is now the lead farm broadcaster at WHO and WMT Radio based in Des Moines, Iowa. He has been a columnist for HPJ and Midwest Ag Journal for eight years.