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RSS By: Steve Cornett, Beef Today

Read the latest blog from Steve Cornett.

Trace Beef not Cattle?

Jan 25, 2011

Mandatory animal ID may be near dead at the moment, but don’t think that means we can all forget the idea. The non-meat food industry is about to get a dunking into the value of food traceability—see the Washington Post piece at

The law doesn’t apply to meat and poultry products, but you’ve got to wonder whether that will matter in the end. If government, consumerist groups or, more importantly, consumers, like the way it works on melons and beans, don’t you suppose beef and eggs might be next

Don't think I mean I'm sure of that. This is a prime example of the sort of expensive, hard-to-manage rules that have made big Ag successful. Jon Tester won an amendment that exempts the smallest, direct-to-consumer, farmers-market type producers, but it will apply to most commercial scale producers.

But that same concept would not apply to many of the beef producers I know. It could exempt the people who don’t put product into the food chain—who sell it all to the neighbors—but that wouldn’t be many of us. Even the most successful direct marketers I’ve heard about have to take a few cattle to the auction.

I’m a big fan of beef safety. I’m a big fan of traceability. If I’m selling a nasty bug to a feedyard and it is finding its way to some poor consumer, I’d like to know about it and find a way not to do it.

But it worries me that it will be much easier for pork and poultry producers. Those pigs and chicks move through the system like bumps through a snake. They can already be traced back to their birth moms. Cattle not so much. Even if a packer can trace a cut of meat back to the feedyards—which most can—in most cases they can’t go any further.

I don’t see the public liking that for much longer. The technology’s here. It’s not all the expensive. They’re going to start asking their grocers how come they can see who grew their melons and can’t find the same about their beef?

Should we be scared of that?


On the one hand, it will be easier and cheaper for pork and poultry. On the other, when that consumer scans the bar code, he’ll just get a picture of a hen house that looks like all the other hen houses. When he scans a T-bone, he might get a picture of your ranch. That strikes me as a pretty good selling point.


But there might be more value for that consumer to know which packer the product came from. To some extent, you’d be forcing a “brand” onto processors, making them more accountable for, not just the safety, but the quality, of the product. They might, in such circumstance, be able to scare up a few more pennies a head to do more aging or pay extra for tenderness genes or otherwise try harder not to put a product out there that embarrasses us.


I know a lot of folks get livid when you talk about mandatory ID. But I’ve used electronic ID tags. My premise is registered. Yawn. It doesn’t take much of a premium to pay for that.


People are going to like this stuff when they learn about it. It’s going to be worth some money to producers. It already makes it easier to sell overseas and will only get more so as time passes. Moreover, it lets the backyard hen, goat and horse raisers off the hook, so maybe won’t generate so much opposition.


Alas, it won’t be real effective in tracing animal health problems. We’ll just to climb that mountain of carcasses when we come to it.

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