The association will work out final details for the U.S. livestock-identification program, which has been spurred on by companies such as Wal-Mart Stores Inc. and McDonald's Corp., during several meetings in January. The program's launch will be announced at the group's annual convention in San Antonio, Texas, at the end of January. The association's board of directors will present an implementation plan to nearly 6,000 participants, including executives from retail stores, restaurants, and the food industry, according to Jay Truitt, acting VP of government affairs for the National Cattlemen's Beef Association.
If the project sounds familiar, it's because the United States Department of Agriculture attempted a nationwide RFID-tracking program for livestock that was slated to start last June after a Washington state cow from Canada was identified in December 2003 as having bovine spongiform encephalopathy, or mad cow disease. That nationwide plan never fully materialized, although some individual states, such as Michigan, have had some success in tracking infectious diseases using RFID.
The cattle industry, and the retailers and restaurants that sell the meat, have a big motivator: money. "The amount of money companies such as Wal-Mart and McDonald's could lose dwarfs the cost to implement a national identification program," says Kevin McGrath, president and CEO at Digital Angel Corp. McGrath's company also stands to gain. He estimates Digital Angel will bring in $5 million in 2005 from the sale of RFID tags for livestock if the U.S. identification program takes off. "There are at least 100 million cattle in the United States to chip, and there are about 40 million cattle slaughtered every year."
There's a chance the ranchers will take a cue from the retail industry and form a consortium similar to GS1 (formerly UCCNet) to monitor the information, and create "thousands" of third-party data pools, or "data trustees," as Truitt calls them, to protect and house information, such as vaccination records. The other option would be to have the United States Department of Agriculture monitor the data, but Truitt says livestock ranchers are apprehensive about allowing a government agency to maintain the information because there are confidentiality concerns. The association also will have to develop a common electronic network that ties together the information from ranches across the country. It's not clear how the association will fund the project. One option is to charge ranchers a fee for each animal, or a single fee for each ranch.
With information about animals' health documented and readily available, the U.S. cattle industry will have the proof it needs to assure the international market U.S. beef is safe. "Sharing this information about individual animals also tells us where we spend dollars we don't need to spend," Truitt says. "It will also give valuable information to even the smallest calf rancher who wants to know 18 months later that his livestock made it safely to the Wal-Marts or the McDonald's of the world."