A New Zealand government advisory group's recommendation to set up a compulsory identification system for every farm animal in the country is to be welcomed. If implemented, the system will give further reassurance to consumers around the world as to the healthy status of New Zealand meat, which in turn may help to bolster meat exports.

The Meat and Wool New Zealand report, released by the Animal Identification and Traceability Working Group, has recommended that a mandatory system for animal identification be in place in New Zealand by October 2007.

New Zealand currently monitors its farm animals through older, voluntary ID schemes. However, gaps in these systems exist as they do not cover all farm animals. A new system which would encompass the whole of the farm animal trade - and could monitor animals from the farm to the slaughterhouse - would provide better transparency in the industry.

The country has never experienced the damage that BSE has inflicted on other agriculture markets round the world. BSE was estimated to have caused losses of US$2.5bn to the Canadian beef industry in 2003. China has upheld a ban on all US beef imports following a case in 2003. And in Japan, the price of beef fell 20-30% less than three weeks after BSE was found in a single dairy cow.

A compulsory identification system would be beneficial if a disease such as BSE did break out in New Zealand, potentially avoiding the pitfalls that Canada, Japan or the US experienced after the outbreaks in their countries. It would improve the speed of identifying and containing diseased animals, and, most importantly, decrease the time New Zealand meat would potentially be banned from foreign markets. 

There can be little doubting the importance of meat exports to New Zealand agriculture, as around 85% of its meat is sold overseas. However, the past year has seen the country suffer a 17% decline in meat exports, and this may also partly explain the authorities' move to introduce a compulsory animal ID system. Such a database would not only protect the meat production industry from trade bans in the event of future food scares but also provide the transparency and quality assurance increasingly demanded by consumers.

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