Meat traceability is coming even if the naive consumer doesn’t care

Recently Livestock Inspection Services (LIS), the cattle brand inspection agency in Alberta, hosted the annual meeting of the International Livestock Identification Association (ILIA) in Calgary. Basically, the ILIA is composed of brand inspectors and regulatory bureaucrats from the western provinces and western U.S. states. This event is usually a pretty mundane affair light on serious topics, but big on good-old-boy socializing.

But instead of the usual fare, LIS turned this event into a world-class seminar on livestock identification (ID) and meat traceability. Speakers covered the whole pipeline from producer to consumer with some refreshing reality that not only rationalized the topic, but also caused some exasperation depending on your viewpoint.

It became clear from government, academic and retailer speaker perspectives that traceability was being driven from the top down – essentially for the benefit of the naive consumer. Two things came to light, unless governments become more magnanimous, most livestock ID and traceability costs will be borne by the industry, and as many suspect, that usually means the cow-calf producer. The other enlightenment was the statistic that when consumers were asked their opinion on beef issues, traceability was recognized by only 4 per cent of consumers – that’s just about at the bottom – so who cares.

Well, one of the really big dogs cares, that being McDonalds. A speaker from that global giant (factoid – they serve 60 million meals per day in 117 countries; 2.5 million in Canada.) made it clear that traceability to them was critical to maintaining customer trust. They intend to buy product that is traceable and will demand it where they can – interestingly, the speaker was somewhat ambiguous about whether McDonalds was prepared to pay a premium for traceable product. Cow-calf producers instinctively know what that means.

An interesting highlight of the discussions was the precarious position of the U.S. on the issue. It lags far behind the other big meat traders (European Union (EU), Canada, New Zealand, Australia) on livestock ID, and progress towards traceability. Glenn Brand from the Beef Information Centre stated the obvious when he said that ID and traceability are going to be a trading advantage for those countries that have a complete package first. That could be good for Canadian beef exports, but cash-poor cow-calf producers might want to know if that advantage will actually put any extra loonies in their pockets.

The U.S. seems to be where Canada was ten years ago. Their first attempt at a national ID program failed – mostly because it was voluntary – only a third applied for premise ID. They are now proposing a new scheme that puts the onus on American states and Tribal Nations to buy into the concept and play a significant role. I suspect that only increases the list of government culprits to suspicious American producers. It would seem that unless there is an overwhelming domestic demand (the U.S. does not rely on exports), ID and traceability have a long row to hoe down there. Apparently they learned nothing from the BSE outbreak in the U.S.

Another observation from the seminar was the revelation that each country that has gone down the trail of livestock ID and traceability intends to do it their own way. A speaker from Mexico reviewed their system, interestingly it was producer/exporter driven with almost no government involvement. Most are aware of the European livestock passport system that is almost totally government managed. Canada, Australia and some of the others have each developed their own systems. Tag manufacturers wince at this development – being each country insists that the same tags be extensively tested for each jurisdiction.

It causes one to ponder on how much easier it would be to have one universal worldwide livestock ID and traceability scheme in place. Wouldn’t that facilitate trade and take some of the political trade mischief out of the beef export business. But alas beef trade politics is a never ending exasperating exercise. The McDonalds spokesman noted that the European beef supply is rapidly shrinking with the significant reduction in the EU cattle herd (partly the result of onerous EU regulations) but that the EU had no intention of reducing tariffs or increasing quotas to allow in more imported beef to meet the demand. If only ID and traceability could solve such exasperation.