Product traceability: fact, fiction or the future?

Last Sept. 11, after terrorists flew planes into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, air traffic controllers grounded all planes in North America within a couple of hours. Because of advance planning, controllers knew what to do and their quick implementation of the plan saved lives.

If an emergency were to occur in agriculture, how quick would be the response?

Establish traceability
Many commodity and agricultural leadership groups are working independently to conceptualize a system of product identity, so that ag products can be traced back to the farm from which they came.

A traceability system will require a considerable investment of time and money. Industry leaders from all of the commodity groups have a vested interest and must work together to achieve this goal. This identity system will be important if a threat to our food system, whether real or perceived, occurs. But the larger payoff will be meeting the ever-changing needs of domestic and global consumers.

Developed countries, with only 20 percent of the world's population, have 80 percent of the world's wealth. Many dairy products are marketed in these capital-rich regions. Close coordination all the way up the food chain will become a requirement, not an option. Product traceability will not only be for safety and security, but to meet the discriminating needs of a more sophisticated consumer.

Anticipate the puck
We must keep an eye on changing consumer patterns. As former hockey great Wayne Gretzky once said,: "Don't go where the puck is; anticipate where it is going to be!"

Technology and database information systems will become more sophisticated, helping to link the food chain together. Producers will have the benefit of increased consumer feedback. This, in turn, will alter genetics or management decisions in the field to provide the kind of products that consumers desire. Companies that anticipate these changes and develop new products will stand to profit in the globabl marketplace.

A five-point plan
The dairy and agriculture industry needs to develop a five-point visionary plan. First, all commodity groups must work together for the betterment of the industry and stay current with the changing consumer marketplace.

Second, the entire food traceability system must not be state or regional in nature, but rather encompass all of North America. In the future global marketplace, North America will compete against other global blocks, such as Europe, Asia, South America and the South Pacific. So, coordination between all of the countries in North America is vital.

Third, the system should be developed initially for safety, but also to meet the evolving needs of the consumer.

Fourth, some funds now used in our farm subsidy programs should be used to develop this system through grants and incentives to producers and industry.

Finally, it will be critical to have cross-linkages with the food regulators and others to implement emergency-action plans if the unthinkable should occur.

Be proactive
In the near future, we must develop a traceability system based on technology and the changing desires of consumers. It should be a proactive, coordinated effort throughout agriculture. That way, we will be ready if another "September 11" should suddenly hit agriculture. We must envision safety initially, but, more importantly, a traceability system that meets and exceeds the needs of tomorrow's consumer.

So what does this mean to a dairy producer milking 100 cows in eastern South Dakota? It could mean everything to the profitability and sustainability of the farm and the dairy industry.

David Kohl is a professor of agriculture and applied economics, and Alicia Moyer is a graduate research assistant and Gibson Scholarship winner at Virginia Tech University.