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Beef Cattle and Biosecurity – there’s a lot going on!

As we begin to think about food security for the ESIP 2015 winter meeting, I wanted to take a moment to mention an aspect of this element of food security that while it does not often directly present the opportunity to use the geospatial climate data and services that many work with, some of the issues that crop up in information management are situations with which you may be familiar. I’ve been in the process of writing my dissertation proposal, which is looking at analyzing information resources about cattle identification and traceability from state government channels in the interest of homeland security and prevention of agroterrorism.  As I’ve been living and breathing the literature in this area, there are a lot of connections with past issues that have come to the forefront of my mind.

To give you an idea of the issues at hand, we know that Americans eat a lot of beef. The total amount of beef consumption in the US in 2013 was about 25.5 billion pounds. A majority of this comes from approximately 729,000 beef cattle operations in the US. (NCBA, 2014) The phased production of cattle through the beef supply chain connects farmers and industry workers to retail and consumers nation-wide.

Imagine how a single instance of infection to a herd could spread a disease and the impact of such an outbreak. Infectious diseases are spread to other cattle through manure, saliva, blood, urine, or in some cases through the air. (Hopkins, Welborn, & Palmer, 2006) Additionally, 75 percent of new infectious human diseases are of animal origin and 60 percent of human pathogens are communicable between species to other animal populations. (IIAD, 2014)

A previous post mention that the cattle tracking system that we have in the US just changed in 2013 from a voluntary national system to a less complex and mainly state-based ruling, which means there are not a lot of opportunities to monitor the cattle populations throughout the supply chain.

So- you may ask – what keeps national systems from being mandatory and what does this have to do with ESIP?

  • The importance of standardization – One of the major issues that the literature talks about is how implementing standard protocols on such a diverse and distributed population is near to impossible. In particular areas of the country there are different reasons and ideas behind the practices that the producers use and have used for centuries. There are ISO standards for RFID tags, but when freeze branding makes more sense, costs less and you already have the tools…
  • The importance/problem of traceability – Many producers take great care in their herd management and cattle identification practices, but the aspect of traceability means so much more than just keeping records. Just as a traceable data set can be tracked back to the creator, the traceable beef cattle record needs to be able to pin point the places where that cow has been. There is a fear here of potential liability among producers and often there is a concern for their own privacy and autonomy.
  • Who is going to manage the data? Finally, this is a question that pervades a lot of the discussions about the multitude of technologies that create swaths of important yet large records with in some cases sophisticated information. Who keeps this data? If we were to implement a national traceability system, what would the infrastructure to manage it cost? Who would be able to see this data? Scholars have noted that some stakeholders feel that proprietary companies might be more suited to managing such traceability systems. (Anderson, 2010) In the discussion of management, there are a lot of unanswered and complex questions.

Can you begin to see some similarities? Though not an expert in data management, I was beginning to draw some connections with the experiences that I’ve had talking with people and working with groups at ESIP. I think the important thing to mention now is that there is a lot of management and communication infrastructure at both the federal and state level that are connecting on behalf of food safety and biosecurity.

These include such programs as:

  • EDEN (Extension Disaster Education Network) is an important link between extension experts, the USDA, and local emergency resources.
  • IIAD (Institute for Infectious Animal Diseases) is one of the Department of Homeland Security’s centers for excellence and is engaged in research to “prevent, detect, mitigate and recover” in the threat harmful animal disease outbreaks.

These are just two of the many often-linked programs that are thinking about beef cattle and biosecurity. So even though we may not be in a situation to be traceable on a national scale there is activity in the interest of the many links within the beef supply. As a country we may not hear a lot about them, but they are there and there is a whole lot of communication and research going on.


Anderson, D. P. (2010). The US animal identification experience. Journal of Agricultural and Applied Economics, 42(3), 553.

Hopkins FM, Welborn M, Palmer G, et al. University of Tennessee Cooperative Extension Web site. Biosecurity for the beef herd.

Available at:

IIAD (2014) Mission, Organization, and Research. IIAD.TAMU.EDU. Available at:

NCBA (2014) Beef Industry Statistics. Available at: