In an ironic twist, the 2008 Farm Bill's Country of Origin Labeling (COOL) requirements could speed the implementation of national animal identification.
Why ironic? Many of the very people who favor COOL are also the same people who oppose, almost to the point of violence, a national animal identification system.
I've never been a fan of COOL. On my top 10 list of priorities in assuring consumers that the food they buy is safe, I'd rank it about #20.
Nevertheless, Congress included COOL in the Farm Bill it passed earlier this summer. USDA's goal is to publish a interim final rule on COOL by July 30, with an effective date of September 30.
Keep in mind that the Farm Bill prevents USDA from using COOL as a pretense to implement a national mandatory animal ID program. But even if it's not mandatory, a national ID program is the next logical step.
What simpler way to identify cattle than with an electronic RFID button tag that's linked to a registered U.S. premise?
If anything, market forces will drive the need for a simple, cheap identification system, say both the National Cattlemen's Beef Association (NCBA) and the National Milk Producers Federation (NMPF)
"Anything new like this will be market-force driven,” says Colin Woodall, NCBA's executive director of legislative affairs. Food retailers will be required to verify country of origin of the meat products they sell, and they'll pass that requirement on to their suppliers who will pass it down the chain all the way to the farm.
"The market place is going to drive the treatment of animals, including identification,” agrees Chris Galen, NMPF VP of communications. "We've always advocated animal ID, not for marketing purposes or for COOL, but to protect our infrastructure.”
Note: More than 42,000 of commercial dairy and heifer operations, some 70%, now have their premises registered for national ID.
Imported Canadian cattle, which have been coming across the border since late November of last year, are already required to carry official Canadian brands or individual ID, including their Canadian ear tag and records to prove premise of origin.
As of last week (July 15), retailers will have to verify they have the records to prove Canadian cattle origins. For more on the identification requirements of Canadian dairy cattle imports, click here. These rules were set last year, prior to the border opening November 19.
I'm no trade law expert. But it seems to me the Canadians could get a little uppity if U.S. domestic requirements for cattle ID to meet marketing requirements are less stringent than those for imported cattle. (Can you smell a World Trade Organization challenge coming?)
So COOL could be a blessing in disguise. If it speeds the adoption of comprehensive (if not mandatory) national ID, it might well be worth all the other hassle of meeting COOL requirements from the farm to the meat case.
COOL nor national animal ID will prevent a major disease outbreak in this country. But national ID could certainly help contain the outbreak should it occur.
Containment is essential. One estimate, offered by Tom McKenna with the Wisconsin Diagnostic Laboratory, suggests a foot and mouth disease outbreak could cost the U.S. livestock industry $27 billion dollars. That's roughly three-quarters of the farm-gate value of all the milk produced in this country last year.
Anything that could limit such a disaster, even COOL, is worth it.
Jim Dickrell is editor of Dairy Today. You can reach him by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.