Beef Issues Quarterly Archive

Traceability’s Impact on International Demand for U.S. Beef

by U.S. Meat Export Federation staff


Traceability is often discussed as an attribute that can help open new doors for exports of U.S. beef, and one that other beef-exporting nations have used to promote and differentiate their products in the international marketplace. It is difficult to quantify business that’s been either won or lost on the issue of traceability, because requirements vary not only from country to country, but also from customer to customer. In this article, we will cite examples of traceability programs in beef-producing countries and discuss how those programs impact global beef trade.


Thousands of U.S. producers have enrolled their cattle in voluntary traceability programs – in many cases to meet the requirements of specific importing countries. Examples include the age and source verification program that was required for exporting beef to Japan between 2005 and 2013, when Japan only accepted beef from U.S. cattle 20 months of age and younger.  Another example is enrollment in the non-hormone-treated cattle (NHTC) program, which is a prerequisite for exporting beef to the European Union.

Traceability increasingly also holds value in the domestic market, where a growing number of U.S. consumers are interested in knowing where the meat they purchase comes from, and other details about how it was produced. While none of the programs supporting traceability marketing claims are mandatory, producers have utilized them to differentiate their cattle and make them more attractive to buyers. Still, the United States is sometimes compared unfavorably to other exporting countries that have mandatory “national” traceability systems for slaughter cattle. This is not entirely correct because USDA implemented a national Animal Disease Traceability (ADT) program in 2013. But in its current form, the scope of the ADT program is limited to cattle and bison more than 18 months of age, all dairy cattle and cattle/bison in exhibitions. This makes the United States something of an outlier among major beef-exporting countries, which employ the following programs:

Summaries of major competitors’ traceability systems


Australia’s National Livestock Identification System (NLIS) was created in 1999 and became mandatory in 2005. The primary motivation for the NLIS was to ensure continued access to international markets, as Australia typically exports more than 65 percent of its total beef production. But the program has also been leveraged as a marketing tool for Australia’s “clean and safe” and “traceability you can trust” advertising campaigns.

New Zealand

New Zealand’s National Animal Identification and Tracing (NAIT) program was created in 2006 and became mandatory in 2011. Its creation was due in part to the need to manage bovine tuberculosis, but is also intended to ensure international market access.


The Canadian Cattle Identification Agency (CCIA) was first established by producers in 1998.     Canada’s traceability program was developed for the containment and eradication of animal diseases. The system identifies where the animal was born and where it was slaughtered, but does not track every movement through the life of the animal. The industry-managed Canadian Livestock Tracking System (CLTS) database can be accessed by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) to identify a given animal’s birth premise in the event of an animal health issue. Canada’s movement toward mandatory traceability was accelerated by the need to regain international market access following confirmation of the first Canadian-born BSE case in May 2003. By 2006, all cattle leaving their herd of origin were required to have a CCIA-approved RFID tag. As of July 2010, all cattle were required to have an approved RFID tag prior to moving from their current location or leaving their farm of origin.  Mandatory traceability was a key factor in China’s decision to reopen its market to Canadian beef in 2012. Although it took several years for Canada to emerge as a significant supplier to China, shipments to China accelerated in the second half of 2015, making it the second-largest destination for Canadian beef.


The National Livestock Information System (SNIG) was originally supposed to become mandatory for all Uruguayan cattle born after 2006. But this deadline was extended a number of times, and the program did not become fully mandatory until 2013. The main motivation for developing this system was to help ensure access to international markets, especially with regard to foot-and-mouth-disease (FMD) related restrictions. Given the small scale of Uruguay’s beef plants, product can be traced back to the animal and its farm of origin. Uruguay has used this to differentiate itself from other exporters. The industry’s generic logo, showing grass blending into a barcode, emphasizes its grass-fed production system with pasture-to-plate traceability.


The Brazilian System of Identification and Certification of Bovine and Buffalo (SISBOV) was launched in 2002. While it is only mandatory for live animal exports and for certain beef export markets, the system has helped the industry regain access to markets once closed to Brazilian beef due to BSE and FMD, including China and the European Union. Since Brazil is regionalized for FMD, meaning only certain states have “FMD-free” and “FMD-free-with-vaccination” status, traceability helps ensure that exported product is originating from approved states/locations.


Argentina’s Animal Health Information System (SGS) was created in 2007 and is mandatory for all cattle born after 2007. It is a key component of Argentina’s efforts to maintain control over FMD and regain access to international markets that are closed or partially closed to Argentine beef due to FMD.

European Union

Although the European Union is not thought of as one of the world’s major beef exporters, it was sixth-largest in 2015 and its livestock traceability system is highly regarded by its trading partners. In response to the BSE crisis, the traceability program was established in 1997. Over time, this has helped some EU member states regain beef access in key international markets. 
Several of these countries export large volumes of beef to China – so is traceability the issue keeping U.S. beef out of China?

Considering all of the issues that complicate U.S.-China trade relations, it would be an oversimplification to say that the lack of a national traceability system is the issue preventing U.S. beef from reentering China. However, traceability is a requirement for exporting beef to China, regardless of the supplying country. Domestically, although China lacks a national system, recent food safety scandals are incentivizing restaurants and retailers to implement food and meat traceability systems. Some local governments are implementing rules that establish basic traceability schemes and record-keeping.

Officials from China have been made aware of the traceability capabilities that exist in many U.S. cattle marketing arrangements in the United States, and have signaled that it will require imported U.S. beef to be derived from traceable cattle. A regulatory review by Chinese officials of the traceability systems available in the U.S. will hopefully take place later this year, and should provide more answers on China’s specific requirements and expectations.

Why is regaining access to China so important?

When China closed to U.S. beef in December 2003, it was not a large destination for imported beef, regardless of origin. That year China imported about 57,000 metric tons (mt) of beef, valued at $64.4 million. While U.S. beef captured about 75 percent of this total, demand was limited and China ranked as only the 15th-largest beef importer in the world. With U.S. beef locked out of the market, China’s imports dipped below $30 million for the next five years, before jumping to $53.1 million in 2009 and nearly doubling to $103.8 million in 2010. Strong growth has continued in this decade, with 2015 imports reaching a record 495,000 mt valued at nearly $2.4 billion. This makes China the world’s fourth-largest beef importer and the fastest-growing market in the world. Its leading suppliers are Australia and Uruguay, but Brazilian beef has come on strong since regaining access in mid-2015. In fact, Brazil was China’s largest beef supplier in December 2015 and January 2016, with January imports totaling more than 19,000 mt (32 percent market share).

Regaining access to China remains a top priority for the U.S. beef industry, even though it is increasingly clear that access could be limited to a specific portion of U.S. production. Lack of access to China had a tangible negative impact on certain Asian cut prices in 2015, which reduced carcass value and negatively affected the producers’ bottom lines. It is clear that at a time when the U.S. cattle herd is growing and beef production is on an upward trajectory, access to China would help restore value to the beef cutout. Every day that U.S. beef remains shut out of the Chinese market, U.S. beef exports and the value of U.S. cattle are not reaching their full potential.

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Tags: Beef Issues Quarterly, Issues Updates, Spring 2016

March 24, 2016