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National cattle tagging system facing challen -

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National cattle tagging system facing challenges

Reporter: Hamish Fitzsimmons

MAXINE MCKEW: Nick Grimm reporting there. Now to Australia's beef industry. It trades on its clean
and green image in a world market where overseas producers have been blighted by outbreaks of foot
and mouth and mad cow disease. To reinforce this positive image, a new high-tech system has been
introduced to allow the tracking of cattle through every stage from the paddock to the plate, but
the implementation of the National Livestock Identification System, or NLIS, has not been without
its hitches. According to critics, it is expensive and unworkable. Meat and Livestock Australia,
the peak marketing body for Australian beef, maintains these are only teething problems, however
the organisation has been embarrassed by the recent hijacking of an online poll which recorded a
high level of dissatisfaction among cattle farmers. Hamish Fitzsimmons reports.

TOM GUBBINS, CATTLE BREEDER: The NLIS system is a world leader. It's the envy of the rest of the
world.

JOHN CARTER, AUSTRALIAN BEEF ASSOCIATION: Somebody has got to stand up and by "somebody" I mean a
minister is going to have to stand up and say, "Look, we've got it wrong. This isn't working."

HAMISH FITZSIMMONS: This is the technology that's sparked furious debate amongst Australia's cattle
producers. The National Livestock Identification System promises to track every beast from paddock
to plate. It's meant to maintain Australia's beef greatest marketing asset, a clean and safe image,
and proponents of the system say it gives Australia an edge over other countries in competitive
export markets.

TOM GUBBINS: We need to be better at what we do than them so our customers don't go and buy their
product, they buy it off us because ours is safer and better.

PETER MCGAURAN: Overseas markets are ever more demanding for food safety guarantees, with outbreaks
of BSE and in some cases foot and mouth diseases and other exotic diseases, you must have
traceability or they will close down your whole market overnight.

HAMISH FITZSIMMONS: The NLIS works through placing electronic tags on cows' ears which are then
entered into an online database which tracks any movement of the animals.

TOM GUBBINS: The speed and accuracy of using electronic tags mean we take the human error out of
looking up the animal's ident off the tag, and also the human error of actually writing the weight
down.

HAMISH FITZSIMMONS: Farmers like Tom Gubbins in Victoria have embraced the system wholeheartedly.

TOM GUBBINS: We've had US and European people here to see the system and see how it works and they
all are very envious of what we have and it makes me very proud of what the beef industry has
achieved.

HAMISH FITZSIMMONS: But other producers argue that the NLIS is costly to implement and they say
tracking can work well on individual properties, but the online database is a mess.

JOHN CARTER: This is meant to be a list of the cattle on my property, but it's very, very
inaccurate because, of the cattle that I have sold, only 24 per cent have actually been recorded as
having been killed at abattoirs.

HAMISH FITZSIMMONS: John Carter raises cattle on a property north of Goulburn in NSW. He says
legislation in each State, which prohibits moving cattle from property to property or to sale yards
without entering it on the database, just doesn't work.

JOHN CARTER: You cannot move a beast off your property without having it tagged and informing the
database. Now, when you put that scenario on 200,000 producers, most of whom are computer
illiterate, a lot of agents and worst of all the abattoirs, which are only reading a small
percentage of those that are killed, you've just got chaos.

HAMISH FITZSIMMONS: The NLIS replaced the old cattle tail tagging system. It was promoted by the
peak marketing group, Meat and Livestock Australia, as a requirement for entry into the European
Union and Japanese markets.

JOHN CARTER: They told us that the Japanese required it. They told us that the Americans would soon
have it. All of which were blatant lies. So, the State Government ministers sort of got stampeded
along and we've got a mess.

HAMISH FITZSIMMONS: The Japanese Ministry of Agriculture says there's no mandatory tracing
requirement and the EU told the 7:30 Report it was satisfied with the previous tail tagging system,
but the MLA is sticking to its guns.

JOHN WYLD, MLA: That doesn't relate to the real facts. In 1999 the EU told us quite clearly that
our system was no longer satisfactory for shipments to the EU and they said unless we had
similarity or complementarity with their system, which is a full system that tracks cattle and all
movements, they would no longer accept our product.

HAMISH FITZSIMMONS: John Wyld is the head of Meat and Livestock Australia's implementation scheme
for the NLIS.

JOHN WYLD: A lot of the questions reflect a degree of lack of understanding of how the database
works.

HAMISH FITZSIMMONS: Mr Wyld says if the critics of the NLIS took time to learn the system properly,
their problems would vanish.

JOHN WYLD: The complaints reflect a lack of understanding. Some people simply ring the help desk
and they are resolved and are happy. Some people, they raise these complaints in public forums. We
ask them to come and sit down with us and so far they haven't.

HAMISH FITZSIMMONS: But it seems some staff at Meat and Livestock Australia aren't so confident.
The organisation has been embarrassed by an incident which shows just how sensitive it is to
criticism of the NLIS. Recently, The Land newspaper's online poll asked its readers:

How do you rate the performance of the national livestock identification system?

HAMISH FITZSIMMONS: Midway through the polling, 65 per cent of voters described it as poor or
terrible, but within hours the results completely reversed, with 70 per cetn of voters describing
it as good or excellent. Smelling a rat, The Land's editors investigated the sudden change and what
did they find? It turns out the poll had been hacked via a computer at Meat and Livestock
Australia's Sydney office.

JOHN WYLD: It was a very foolish thing to do and it embarrassed the MLA.

HAMISH FITZSIMMONS: As the public face of the NLIS, John Wyld has been the target of much of the
criticism directed at it, including the claim that a family member has a financial interest in its
success. His son owns a business which supplies software and tag readers for more than 60,000
cattle.

JOHN WYLD: That's got nothing whatsoever to do with me. We don't have any connection with that, but
I think what it does emphasise is the innovation shown in the beef industry and their ability to
grasp new technology.

HAMISH FITZSIMMONS: The slanging match over the stock tracing system prompted the Federal
Government to intervene with the Minister for Agriculture, Peter McGauran, deciding to audit the
performance of the database.

PETER MCGAURAN: The audit will meet with the critics or those with concerns, put themselves in the
shoes of producers and stock agents and processors and the like. We want to do it from a practical
point of view.

HAMISH FITZSIMMONS: Until the audit results are published, the minister is asking for patience from
cattle producers.

PETER MCGAURAN: It's a trail blazing technology. It is big, it is complex and it is dependent very
much on the competence of those who operate it out in the field and there are tens of thousands of
people involved in that and all information technology systems are dependent on what's fed in. It's
still early days. It will only get better and it will realise its full potential.

HAMISH FITZSIMMONS: The audit of the NLIS database is meant to settle debate about its merits, but
farmers are so divided, it is doubtful if the argument will ever be laid to rest.

JOHN CARTER: Let's go back to the tail tag system and the NBD, the National Vendor Declaration,
which was the best mandatory trace back system in the world.

JOHN WYLD: The National Livestock ID Scheme, which uses RF tags, is absolutely essential for the
future survival of our beef industry.