Support of animal identification initiative is imperative

by Keith Nunes
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Beyond the purview of most executives in the food and beverage industries a debate is under way that may have significant implications for many sectors of the food business, specifically the meat and poultry sectors. In an effort to ensure rapid response to an animal disease outbreak or, worse, deliberate contamination of the food supply, the U.S. Department of Agriculture is attempting to establish the National Animal Identification System (N.A.I.S.) as a voluntary program for tracing live animals along the entire supply chain. Standing in the U.S.D.A.’s way are cattle and hog producers who are opposed to this initiative.

The idea for the N.A.I.S. was conceived from experience. The discoveries of bovine spongiform encephalopathy in the United States and Canada in the past 10 years as well as the devastation caused by the outbreak of foot and mouth disease in the United Kingdom in 2001 are all examples of why the federal government believes it needs to have a rapid response program in place to mitigate economic harm.

The N.A.I.S. is designed to quickly determine three primary pieces of information in reaction to a crisis — which animals are involved in a disease outbreak; where the infected animals are currently located; and what other animals might have been exposed to the disease. With these pieces of information government regulators will have the opportunity to prevent a local event from becoming a national and even international crisis.

The need for the N.A.I.S. is even more important as U.S. agriculture becomes increasingly dependent on exports as a means of expanding its business opportunities. Every day that foreign markets are closed, for whatever reason, is economically damaging to meat and poultry processors, their customers, as well as the producers who raise the animals.

To develop an appreciation for how sensitive the situation is, one only has to consider the issue of the H1N1 virus, disastrously nicknamed "swine flu." Despite having nothing to do with food safety or animal health, the detection of the virus in America led to foreign market closures around the world that have directly and indirectly exerted a financial impact on pork processors as well as retail and food service operators. It does not take much of an imagination to envision what type of scenario might unfold if a real crisis were to occur.

Opposition to the N.A.I.S. ranges from typical concerns regarding new government programs to the delusional. On the credible side, producers have expressed concern about the costs of the program, liability issues if animals they own are involved in an outbreak, and security of the information the U.S.D.A. will collect. Livestock producers would face increased costs for the identification tags and auction yards would be required to install scanners to track the movement of the animals. These are not unique concerns; they are raised just about every time the federal government tries to implement new programs and ought to be taken seriously.

Other concerns about the N.A.I.S. fall into the conspiracy theory category, with some opponents claiming the initiative is a Trojan Horse that will allow the government to gain control of rural America.

Consolidation is a driving force within the food industry. As a result, companies such as Kraft Foods Inc., Sara Lee Corp. and ConAgra Foods, Inc. have products that span multiple categories, from grain-based foods to meat-based foods. Any disruption in the supply chain of any ingredient may have a significant effect on a company’s operations.

To ensure such a disruption does not occur in the protein supply chain, it is in the food industry’s best interest to support the N.A.I.S. Whether it is through traditional regulatory comments or a shift in purchasing practices to favor those producers who participate in the N.A.I.S. program, food companies must ensure the nation’s traceability initiatives truly extend from farm-to-fork. It may be perceived as an unimportant production issue, but it strikes at the very foundation of the meat and poultry industries while extending through the food supply chain.

This article can also be found in the digital edition of Food Business News, July 21, 2009, starting on Page 9. Click here to search that archive.

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