Trade and traceability were the big-ticket items as hundreds of cattlemen from around the country gathered in Denver recently for the beef industry's summer conference.

Trade and traceability were the big-ticket items as hundreds of cattlemen from around the country gathered in Denver recently for the beef industry’s summer conference.

The National Cattlemen’s Beef Association has hired World Perspectives Inc., a D.C.-based consulting firm, to study the benefit of adding more traceability to the way American beef is produced. The firm has also been tasked with studying existing traceability programs around the world and determining which ones work best and deliver the most value.

A full report is expected at NCBA’s annual convention next winter in Phoenix.

The Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service of the U.S. Department of Agriculture has already implemented phase one of an animal disease traceability framework, launched in 2013, which was the focus of a series of listening sessions held this spring. In late September, the National Institute for Animal Agriculture and U.S. Animal Health Association will co-host a strategy forum in Denver to discuss the ongoing status of the effort among state veterinarians and other interested stakeholders.

Leaders of the national beef producers’ organization have two main priorities: that there be no disruption to the speed of commerce and it remains voluntary, not mandatory.

Jennifer Houston, who owns and operates a livestock auction in eastern Tennessee and currently serves as NCBA’s vice president, is part of a task force working on the issue. She also has personal experience with what is required to maintain traceability as cattle change hands along the supply chain.

“We already identify 100 percent of the Holstein calves that come through our sale barn,” she said. Holstein calves are the only class of cattle under 18 months of age that were included in phase one of the APHIS disease traceability plan.

“We’ve had some growing pains,” she added. “We have maybe 1,000 Holstein feeder calves that come through our facility in a month. But if you add the millions of feeder calves in the U.S. into that system, we are nowhere ready to do that.”

“We still need to work on perfecting phase one of the plan, in my experience,” she said, adding that the program needs to remain flexible and discretionary.

“We’re not a one-size-fits-all organization,” she said.

Craig Uden, a fourth generation cattleman from Elwood, Nebraska, and the group’s current president, said he would probably “jump at the chance” to participate in a national traceability program but acknowledged others are adamantly opposed to it.

He runs a cow-calf operation and partners on a commercial cattle-feeding business in central Nebraska.

“There’s a lot of questions, and a lot of challenges out there, but eventually we hope to move forward on this,” he said. “Today we don’t have the right plan, but it’s still a work in progress.”

“We do have a few voluntary traceability systems out there, but the question is how do we engage more of the nation’s cattle herd in something like this,” he said.

By general estimate, about 15 percent of domestic beef cattle are produced under some type of voluntary traceability.

The issue has gotten more attention in recent weeks as China agreed to resume beef trade with the U.S., but only if that beef could be traced back to the plant of origin and meet certain quality parameters.

Because the agreement involves unique restrictions, it is not clear how large the volume of trade will be initially, but the re-opening is generating considerable buzz among cattle producers.

“We are considering selling into that market. We have some customers who are interested in it,” Uden said.

“We’ll see what the demand is,” he added. “But don’t forget, we started out really slow in South Korea and Japan, and look at where we are today. There’s a lot of potential.”

Southeast Asian countries like Korea, Japan and Vietnam have become some of the fastest growing markets for U.S. beef.

In a report to the international marketing committee, Kent Baccus, NCBA’s director of international trade and market access, said a benefit of the China deal that sometimes gets overlooked is a provision that insures that even if the U.S. has another incidence of BSE, or bovine spongiform encephalopathy, trade will remain open as long as the U.S. maintains negligible risk status with the world animal health organization. An isolated case of the disease prompted China to slam the door to U.S. beef nearly 14 years ago.

A traceability program is widely seen as a way to isolate, mitigate and contain the impact of future disease outbreaks, while also giving foreign and domestic customers more transparency about the product.

Strong export sales have helped fuel a rally in beef prices this year.

“The Chinese haven’t had much access to grain-finished beef, so this is a huge opportunity for us,” Baccus said.

“Variety meats are the hidden value in this deal,” added Dan Halstrom, senior vice president of global marketing for the U.S. Meat Export Federation, in an interview. China buys many cuts, like tripe and tongue, which are unattractive to American consumers, he said.

He also said China’s preference for beef from naturally raised, non-implanted cattle helps diversify the market for cattle feeders and processors who are currently set up to provide beef for export to the European Union. Chinese specs require the beef comes only from cattle that are not fed popular pharmaceutical products, called beta-agonists, which increase the proportion of lean muscle mass in the carcass.

That means demand for cattle produced under natural production protocols could increase in the months ahead.

“It’s exciting, but it’s going to take time to redevelop that market,” Halstrom said.