July 31, 2008

On Track to a Big Beef

By BASHAM, Laura

Steak and chips takes on new meaning with a proposal that will ultimately see all livestock in New Zealand tagged as part of a database tracing animals from paddock to plate. Submissions close on Friday and Laura Basham looks at how much support it has. --------- ----------- WHY DO IT? To maintain commercial market access in the face of increased demand for traceability from global consumers. Improve tracing of stock for biosecurity purposes. Enhance traceability to protect food safety. Source: NAIT ------------------ --

Tagging 50 million animals is an ambitious plan.

It is also not too popular with farmers, who see it as another unnecessary cost.

The National Animal Identification and Tracing project is a joint industry-government initiative that is set to start next year and be mandatory by 2011.

It got its official launch as government policy at the National Fieldays last month, and submissions on MAF Biosecurity's discussion document on the proposal are due on Friday.

Agriculture Minister Jim Anderton has heralded it as an important move for New Zealand.

"This is how we demonstrate that we are one of the world's leaders in producing high-quality, high-value, safe food," he said.

He said the world's markets were increasingly demanding proof that food systems were of high quality, and traceability was an important part of that.

"Consumers want to know where their food comes from, not just from what country, but sometimes even what farm and what particular part of a farm animals come from.

"NAIT will enable us to do that, on a systematic basis across the whole country," Mr Anderton said.

It will start with tagging all cattle and deer with NAIT- approved radio frequency identity tags, estimated to cost $2.30 to $3.10.

Saleyards, meat processors and show managers will need RFID readers. A wand reader costs $1000 to $2000 and panel reading systems start at $2700.

The animals must be tagged within three months of their birth, or at the time of first contact, and before their first movement between properties regardless of age, except for calves less than 30 days old going directly to slaughter.

Mandatory NAIT tagging of the country's 38 million sheep is seen as a later stage of the project, the timing probably dictated by consumer demand.

Another motivation for compulsory ID of livestock is to improve tracing stock in response to a disease outbreak.

NAIT on its website tells the horror story of one Canadian cow in 2003 discovered to have BSE. The Canadian beef industry was unable to trace it back to the source.

This led to Korean, Taiwanese and Japanese markets banning Canadian beef imports for three years.

The United States also banned Canadian beef from crossing the border to be slaughtered, leading to a drastic decline in market prices, and an estimated loss of $6 billion to $9 billion.

Canada now has a national animal identification system and exports again.

Back here, NAIT says that recording individual animals and movements on a central database will mean an infected animal can be located faster during a biosecurity response.

"The faster and more effective the initial response, the quicker we will be able to limit the spread of the disease and demonstrate to trading partners that all potentially infected animals have been traced, thus limiting the impact on trade."

However, not all farmers are buying that argument.

At last Wednesday's Brightwater livestock sale, Motueka Valley farmer Ian Davey said the aims could be achieved under the present system by tracing the herd number.

He farms 1500 cattle, sheep and goats and can see big costs and a lot of time- consuming effort for no financial benefit in the NAIT scheme.

"If it costs $3.50 to tag a lamb you only have for six months, what benefit is there?" he asked. "There's enough costs to farming today without adding to it."

He said the Australian experience with its National Livestock Identification system showed it cost farmers millions of dollars, earning them nothing extra in premiums.

The time involved in having to send in data would also go unrewarded, he said. In rural areas, email systems were slow and it was just another hassle.

He is also sceptical about the weight given to consumer demands for traceability.

Wakefield sheep and beef farmer Gordon Hope said only the five major supermarkets in England were wanting traceability.

"The old British housewife does not get a say in it," he said. "All it will do is put a cost on the farmer. This has just been a huge exercise in a waste of time because everything works very well as it is."

Tapawera sheep and beef farmer Ray Wills supports NAIT, saying, "It seems to be what the market wants."

The present system was adequate but farmers needed to support what the consumer wanted, he said.

It would cost to buy ear tags but farmers already tagged cattle.

Joyce Cosgrove, who farms 600 sheep at Stanley Brook, sees NAIT as "just another complication".

"It's good in some respects as long as everybody does it correctly. It's just like with TB, there's a system but not everybody sticks to it.

"The idea for the traceability is good for us as farmers to know where our stock is.

"But the cost of the scheme is always an issue in an environment where there are low returns. It's very marginal, farming sheep."

Federated Farmers Nelson meat and fibre chairman Gavin O'Donnell said centralised electronic data collection and storage was preferable to a fragmented system operating under different sets of rules and standards that did not allow cost-effective information sharing.

However, it was imperative that the system was low cost at the start and had low maintenance costs, and that the administrative burden was small.

Benefits for the farmer included certainty about where animals had been farmed before and the ability to monitor individual animal performance across a wide range of data sets, he said.

In the dairy sector, there is concern about the security and integrity of information, as well as whether it is necessary to have another system in addition to the Minda data management system already in place.

Golden Bay dairy farmer Michelle Riley said the NAIT system could not be used to trace individual portions of meat through a processing plant and on into the food chain to the customer, as the head and tag were removed at slaughter.

Many consumers might be interested in the country of origin but not necessarily the exact farm location and might not be interested in paying more for the privilege of doing so, she said.

Research showed consumers wanted assurance of food safety but quality and price were higher on the list when making purchasing choices, she said.

The cost to producers and consumers was not clear but would run into millions of dollars a year, she said.

The cost-benefit analysis in the NAIT document gave no recognition of the on- farm cost either directly for ear tag and readers, or for the extra labour to tag animals and input data.

"If the total cost to New Zealand is greater than total benefits, then is this the right system to promote?" she asked. Do you support the National Animal Identification Traceability system? Ian Davey, Motueka Valley, sheep, cattle and goat farmer. No. It will be an added cost, time-consuming and for no financial benefit to the farmer. Gordon Hope, Wakefield, sheep and beef farmer. No. It's a huge waste of time because everything works well as it is. Ray Wills, Tapawera, sheep and beef farmer. Yes. It seems to be what the market wants. Joyce Cosgrove, Stanley Brook sheep farmer. It's good for the traceability but cost is an issue.


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