On January 16, we learn that yet again the USDA is frantically searching to find another herd of cattle that may be infected with mad cow disease (bovine spongiform encephalopathy, or BSE). On January 7, the U.S. government killed 450 calves in the state of Washington. Most of these animals were killed senselessly. One — or maybe two — calves from the herd are related to the downer cow discovered in December to be afflicted with lethal prions that destroy the brain’s capacity to support life.
The current search and the recent wasteful deaths of hundreds of cattle resulted from the fact that the United States does not require animals destined for the nation’s food supply be given an identity number that allows us to track each one from birth to market. During the 27 days between the slaughter of the sick downer cow on December 9 and the January 5 genetic testing that traced it back to Alberta, Canada, fear — much of it based on a lack of information — caused 40 nations to ban our beef. Prices for US cattle crashed. Ranchers and retailers suffer, and consumers are worried.
If only our nation had previously embraced one simple, but fundamental principle of a healthy and sustainable food system, much of the suffering and hardship could have been rapidly mitigated: clarifying product origin through a system of traceability.
Traceability is critical for three reasons.
First, it builds bonds between the producer and the person eating the food.
Origin means not only location, but also growing method (organic, sustainable) and even a product’s varietal or species. Savvy producers and retailers are already proving the financial advantage of identifying origin in its many forms.
Most of us who shop or prepare meals will periodically seek out a favorite product from a specific locale. It might be Vidalia onions, Maine lobster, California strawberries or Russian River Valley pinot noir. Go into any Safe-way and you will see certified Angus beef. In any natural food store you will find certified organic vegetables or certified fair-trade coffee.
The verification of origin provided by systems that trace the path of agricultural products from field, orchard or pasture to retail shelf allows consumers to become dedicated patrons to components of origin. In this competitive world of global food marketing, American producers need to build stronger bonds with the American public. Products that clarify points of origin are worth more to consumers and this is important for farmers who currently retain only 10 percent of every dollar spent on food. The higher the retail value, the more farmers should earn.
Second, traceability makes it very easy to deal with tainted food crises.
If the Washington state cows had identification numbers that were tracked in a centralized database, the USDA, and therefore the nation, would have known within hours the source of the problem cow and the location of her offspring. The technical challenges related to ending the chain of potential infection would have been dealt with promptly. Fears would have been mitigated faster and the news stories would not have lasted as long. Ranchers, the beef and retail industries and the public would have been better served — not to mention the 448 untainted animals put down on January 7.
Third, traceability builds integrity, pride and quality into the food system. If production is traceable, food processors become much more conscious of protecting the reputation of their region, production system and even preferred species or varietal.
The wine industry has embraced origin-based production and marketing systems. Vintners, retailers and restaurateurs establish competitive advantage based on the origins of their wines. Price is related to origin. The most valuable wines are tracked to the exact vineyard from which the grapes were harvested.
When origin is tracked, beef producers will begin to organize and regulate themselves to insure that they sell high quality product. The British beef industry has been transformed into a much better system because it was identified as the source of BSE contamination.
So if you care about food and health, ask your Congressional representatives to support legislation that requires a national system that pinpoints origin and requires the meat production industry to track every animal in the nation, both imports and domestic, from its birth to final sale.
Michael Dimock is the chairman of Slow Food USA