A local cattle rancher hosted a delegation of beef importers, retailers and distributors from Japan and Taiwan Monday. The visit was part of a four-day tour organized by the Missouri Department of Agriculture meant to give foreign representatives a positive view of Missouri beef.
Beef buyers are seeking assurance of the standardization of genetics and record keeping of U.S. beef after fears of bovine disease closed Asian markets in recent years.
Livestock experts hope Missouri's voluntary Quality Systems Assessment program will give the state a leg up in competition for a share of the Asian market.
"It's a confidence issue. It's important to any consumer these days," said Roger Eakins, University of Missouri Extension regional livestock specialist. "We're really trying hard to put the confidence back in the system. It's extremely safe, but we want to make them more comfortable."
Fifth-generation cattle rancher Bill Masters' herd is one of 4,000 statewide to participate in the QSA identification program. His ranch on County Road 620 was selected to play host to the foreign group yesterday. All 180 cows in his herd are fitted with two tags that track them from birth until slaughter.
Masters said the program is a simple measure for ranchers raising their own cattle.
"It's pretty easy to do if you already have a program that works on your farm. If you keep records and keep all your numbers separate to avoid confusion it's pretty simple," he said. "People get in trouble when they buy and sell calves, and they don't necessarily know where they came from. We raise all ours from birth on up."
The tags cost $3.25 each, but Masters said now the QSA system only makes sense for producers of choice beef.
"They're not coming here looking for hamburger meat," he said. "They're looking for prime steak, and the prime steak comes from the higher quality genetic animal ... the QSA system adds money to whatever you're selling."
Producers selling beef to wholesale markets are less likely to participate in the voluntary program, but that may be changing.
"The goal is for a national ID system," said Eakins. "Some of the bigger companies like Wal-Mart and McDonald's are interested in this. There's starting to be more talk about the source of where they're beef comes from."
U.S. beef exports to Japan were reopened in December after a two-year hiatus over concerns about mad cow disease, but were suspended again a month later when a shipment from a Brooklyn company showed up with bone material that Japan considered at risk for the disease.
In October, Missouri became the first state to develop and implement a voluntary marketing program that guarantees the source and age of its feeder cattle.
The claims by participating Missouri producers are verified by the U.S. Department of Agriculture through the QSA program.
That was crucial to the Japanese, who would not buy beef from an animal older than 20 months, over their concerns that age increased the potential for mad cow disease.
With 56,000 beef producers, Missouri is second only to Texas in the number of calf-producing cows.
Under the Missouri plan, producers have to agree to on site, USDA audits of their production records that they're required to keep for three years. Each participating calf wears two tags -- one in each ear -- that tracks it from birth to slaughter.
A visual tag says the animal is enrolled in the verification program.
An electronic tag holds the animal's 15-digit identifying number. When the electronic tag is scanned at the feedlot, slaughterhouse or packer, it reveals the animal's age, date of birth, and producer number. The information is kept in a computer database and managed by a third party. The cow's two tags are used to cross reference the animal's identity.
"We have a superior product to market," said Fred Ferrell, director of the Missouri Department of Agriculture. "The QSA program allows us to gain market access. Our goal is to build value for Missouri ranchers and farmers."
Ferrell traveled in January to Taiwan and Japan to promote Missouri beef, and discuss its quality and safety. During their visit, Taiwan lifted a six-month-old ban on U.S. imports.
Staff writer TJ Greaney contributed to this report.