The following commentary does not necessarily reflect the views of AgWeb or Farm Journal. The opinions expressed below are the author's own.
This week the National Institute for Animal Agriculture (NIAA) hosts its annual conference with the theme “Livestock Traceability: Opportunities for Animal agriculture.” During the conference, some participants including state and federal animal-health officials, producers, veterinarians, industry representatives and scientists expressed frustration at nearly 20 years discussing traceability, with at times, minimal progress.
Part of the challenge relates to different aspects and applications of livestock traceability and different priorities for stakeholder groups. For the USDA and state animal-health officials, a functional traceability system can help contain disease outbreaks and protect the continuity of our livestock industries. For producers, traceability can facilitate birth-to-plate records for improving livestock productivity and animal value. For processors, food companies and retailers, traceability helps verify value-added features of animal foods across the production chain, protects food safety and improves access to export markets.
Currently, USDA’s mandatory Animal Disease Traceability (ADT) system provides a paper trail for selected classes of livestock moving in interstate commerce, while various industry groups and private companies use traceability systems for adding value through source and process verification. Ultimately, we’ll need both – disease traceability to protect the industry and value-added programs to help cover inherent costs and incentivize participation.
During the conference, USDA Under Secretary of Agriculture for Marketing and Regulatory Programs Gregory Ibach delivered a keynote address on the future of the Animal Disease Traceability (ADT) system. Ibach stressed that USDA intends to collaborate with industry and commodity groups in advancing the ADT system, with an emphasis on protecting animal health and food safety while also benefiting producers. He outlined three critical “legs” to the USDA’s efforts toward protecting the food supply.
- Prevention, preparedness and response: This includes developing systems and standards for biosecurity, surveillance and disease detection, training and outreach and rapid response plans. Previous disease outbreaks, such as highly pathogenic avian influenza (HPAI) have illustrated a need for logistics planning, such as how to move appropriate people and equipment to the necessary locations in response to a disease outbreak.
- National Animal Health Laboratory Network: Ibach discussed a need for rapid diagnostic services at close proximity to produces.
- An expanded national vaccine bank for foot and mouth disease (FMD) and other diseases.
Ibach stressed that prevention is a first priority, and noted that traceability plays a key role in surveillance and response capabilities. USDA, he says, intends to leave traceability technology and mechanics up to individual states, while focusing federal efforts on the information needed to achieve their disease-response goals. USDA will issue requests for proposals from states detailing their biosecurity and traceability plans. Qualification for federal indemnity programs will depend on states implementing approved plans for traceability, including plans for coordinating movement data with neighboring states.
USDA intends to focus initially on a “bookend” system for livestock entering interstate commerce, with assignment of animal identification and tracking capabilities for the farm or ranch of origin and retirement of those ID numbers at slaughter. Eventually, the system would provide traceability through every movement and production stage from birth to slaughter.
Ibach also notes that the Administration’s current budget includes a proposal to move more responsibilities for the federal livestock biosecurity program from the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to USDA’s Agricultural Research Service (ARS) and Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS), as research efforts move from Plum Island, N.Y. to Manhattan, Kan. Currently, DHS, ARS and APHIS share responsibilities for diagnosis, research and education programs at the Plum Island Animal Disease Center.
Discussions on traceability always come back to costs and returns for producers and participants at every downstream stage of the food value chain. Advancements in technology continue to reduce the costs of ID systems and data management, but return on investment remains a critical concern for low-margin participants.
Brian Sterling, founder and president of SCS Consulting, told conference participants that “traceability is free.” Sterling, who has worked with numerous value chains in food and other products, says that when information flows up and down the chain, traceability generates more value than it costs to implement. Monetary benefits come from better quality control, opportunities for increased revenue, better transparency and customer trust and, contrary to some beliefs, reduced exposure to liability risk. “”Traceability is just a tool, he says. “The goal is improved business performance.”
Nigel Gopie, PhD, is marketing leader for IBM’s Food Trust initiative, which includes a secure traceability system for multiple food value chains. The system uses “Blockchain” technology. Originally developed for use with cryptocurrency such as Bitcoin, Blockchain is a “shared immutable ledger for recording the history of transactions.” It provides a permissioned network with known identities, enabling data sharing between participants while also providing a high level of security.
Gopie described a pilot project IBM conducted with Walmart, tracking packages of sliced, packaged mango. The group identified 12 production steps from farm to home, and an initial attempt to trace a package back to its farm of origin took seven days. Using the Blockchain-based Food Trust system, the group was able to trace the fruit back to the farm, including every production stage, in 2.2 seconds.
Traceability for beef, pork, dairy and other animal-based foods is becoming more feasible, more secure and, like it or not, more necessary for reducing disease risk, protecting consumer confidence and expanding global market access. Challenges remain, but it is time for the industry to move forward in adopting and embracing farm-to-table traceability.