WASHINGTON —The U.S. lacks a standard system for tracing livestock from farm to slaughter, with participation voluntary. That causes two problems, industry experts say: the potential for diseased cattle getting into the food system and the potential disruption of Chinese export markets.

As a result, the U.S. Department of Agriculture has renewed its efforts to get the cattle industry on board for mandatory, standardized livestock identification methods, especially by reminding cattle producers that it projects that the U.S. beef exports to China will increase by 42 percent over the next 10 years. But only if certain conditions set by China are met.

In June, China reapproved U.S. beef imports, but said tracing livestock to the birth farm is an important part of stricter import rules. For cattle born and slaughtered in the U.S., the new Chinese rules say the cattle must be individually identified with a tamper-resistant ear tag that has a unique number. It may be an electronic ID, or EID, a radio frequency identification, or RFID, or a program-compliant visual tag. And most importantly, numbers must be accessible by the USDA in order to determine compliance.

But with only 13 percent of U.S. beef exported globally now, some ranchers see it as an unnecessary expense and nuisance, according to Erin Borror of the U.S. Meat Export Federation.

Kansas Animal Health Commissioner Justin Smith expects that attitude to change as the Chinese market opens. Last year alone, China imported 601,000 tons of beef, according to the Farm Bureau Federation. Since 2003, the U.S. has been playing catch-up to leaders Australia and Uruguay, who have claimed the lion’s share of exports to China.

The United States is the only major meat exporter without a standardized system for traceability. The beef cattle industry is especially vulnerable because half of all feed lot cattle are not being officially tagged, with often unreliable data recorded by states about where they come from and where they go.

“Beef feeder cattle can move interstate without being officially identified,” said Neil Hammerschmidt, animal disease traceability manager at the USDA Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service. “About 50 percent of the tags would be the officially recognized tags. This is greatly improved from where we were in 2013, when (federal) official rules were first introduced.”

Nine of 10 feed lot cattle arrive at facilities housing 1,000 head or more, known as Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations, according to the Chicago Mercantile Exchange Group 2016 Daily Livestock Report. Cattle there are often confined to pens with 100 to 125 animals. Some trucks that move interstate destined for a feed lot can carry as much as 50,000 pounds of cattle from many owners, said Kansas angus beef rancher Mark Gardiner.

The beef industry has opposed the inclusion of feeder cattle, those under 18 months of age, to official ID rules, arguing that most are destined for slaughter before age 2 and hence do not pose much risk of spreading disease. But the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service disagrees, arguing that there is a disease risk.

The combination of an inefficient and largely paper-based system of record keeping and ranchers’ pervasive opposition to government intrusion into data has placed the U.S. behind many developed nations like Canada and even some developing nations like Uruguay, which both have mandated traceability standardization.

Adding to the inefficiency is the fact that different states have different rules. For instance, beef cattle moving from Florida to Illinois for feeding on a farm do not need any official identification or certificate of veterinary inspection. The only thing required is an entry permit, telling the number of cattle entering Illinois and whether they are heifers, cows, bulls or steers, and the name and address of the seller, according to the Illinois Bureau of Animal Health and Welfare.

Ranchers who participate in state tracing generally create written lists, often illegible, of the cattle, which are sent to the state to be entered into a computer.

Radio Frequency identification technology, or the use of electronic tags, is widely believed to be a solution to tracing cattle. It has been available for at least a decade, but there are no federal incentives for the small rancher to use it, said former rancher and current Kansas Department of Agriculture Animal Disease Traceability Coordinator Kendra Frasier. Nevertheless, rancher opposition would likely disappear if export markets were affected by a disease outbreak.

“Without official electronic tags, there is the potential for disease introduction into the herd,” Frasier said. “Historically, we have had diseases. To track those diseases is financially taxing. The more technological records we have, the better equipped we are. If we were to ever have a disease outbreak in the United States, faster access to records would be the best thing for us.”

Gardiner, the Kansas rancher whose operation finances its own packing plant, has used an RFID system for cattle identification since 2004. Gardiner believes it is a value-add for his business, but that many small ranchers evaluate the issue through a different cost-benefit lens.

“Some producers may not even use an ear tag, which costs about $1 per head. From their perspective, it’s just a hassle. The electronic identification device costs $5 or $6. For ranchers who own a lot of cattle that are in rough areas, [the implementation] can present quite a practical hurdle. It can be done, but the price ends up being prohibitive.”

Some industries are more open to the use of technology in animal identification. The pork industry, for instance, has about a 95 percent RFID tag participation rate and has been “at the forefront of electronic traceability since the 1980s,” said Brian Black, former president of the National Pork Producers Council, at a recent conference.

The nationwide standardization movement for traceability started in the early 2000s, said Dr. Patrick Webb, director of swine health programs at the National Pork Board. At that time, each animal sector was asked to convert its own industry standardization practices into a robust national system. Not all complied.

In April, the USDA issued a report on animal disease traceability that concluded that the inclusion of feeder cattle in regulations is essential for an effective system in the long term and that the “success of animal disease control efforts hinges on including all sectors of the cattle industry.” Now, USDA officials are going around the country asking producers to get on board by offering advice on the best standards for identifying livestock.

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