Tracing back a quarter century of livestock identification

The evolution of the national ID and traceability system in Canada




Canada’s Traceability Pioneers

A nation-wide livestock ID and traceability program gets off the ground

On a Tuesday morning in April 1997, almost a year before Canadian Cattle Identification Agency (CCIA) was formed, a group of producers, consultants and business experts led by Carl Block of Canadian Cattlemen’s Association fame, and a true advocate of Canadian agriculture and animal health, put their heads together to lay the groundwork for a top-notch ID and traceability program for Canada. Carl would be named the first board chairman of the fledgling agency responsible for administering the federal government’s mandatory cattle identification program. Known today as CCIA, the agency has since expanded its scope to include administration of bison, sheep, and pending regulation, goats and cervid identification (with some exceptions in Québec). 

Others at the table with Carl were Bruce Hepburn of Cargill, Ben Thorlakson, Dennis Laycraft and Heidi Grogan of Canadian Cattlemen’s Association, Charlie Gracey of Canadian Beef Grading Agency, Herb McLane, Canadian Beef Breeds Council, Glenn Cherry, Canadian Dairy Breeds, John Kellar, Canadian Food Inspection Agency, Matt Taylor, Alberta Agriculture Livestock Inspection, Ted Hanley, Canada Beef Export Federation, Jim Wideman, Livestock Marketing Association of Canada and Dr. Kee Jim, Feedlot Health Management Inc.  

The early years met with lots of opposition but agency pioneers like Block maintained it was the right direction for industry to take, especially considering what was happening at the time in the United Kingdom with the foot-and-mouth epidemic.  

Protecting the national herd and food supply 

In its earliest days, the core purpose of a national identification system was to permit the trace back to herd of origin of any bovine animal for purposes of animal health and food safety.    


“The core objective of the Canadian Cattlemen’s Association (CCA) National Cattle Identification program is to create a system whereby every bovine animal sold by its original owner, and leaving its herd of origin, bears a unique identification number. That unique identification number will remain with that animal until it is slaughtered and after slaughter will serve to identify the carcass and its products and will be maintained as an identifying number until 60 days post slaughter.” 1

(Source: Summary of Key Findings and Future Directions, by Charles Gracey, Proceedings of the May 7, 1997, National Identification and Information Workshop, Calgary Alberta)

The development of ID numbers 

At the time, the dairy sector already had a system of numbering that predated computers and required a lot of data management for things like breed, birth date, and gender that were not necessarily relevant to trace back. After looking at that, it was decided to assign a random number that was quite simply the next in the series. The next important factor would be to reserve blocks of numbers that may be unique to an identifiable group.  

This concept of a registry – to give out and record numbers – would be key to the success of the program, and several different options were discussed including expanding Ontario’s registry at the time, the existing brand inspection registry or having producers register their animals in the appropriate breed registries. But there were potential issues with overlap between registries and it was unclear how a coordinated approach could be facilitated. So, a working group was struck up to explore appropriate protocol and standards, to ensure an affordable, reliable, low-complexity system.  

Canadian Cattle Identification Agency was formed 

The first Annual General Meeting was held on March 5, 1998, during which Carl Block was acclaimed as Chairman and Blair Vold as Vice-Chairman.  

Some highlights include this recommendation from the Technical Committee, which was carried: 


“To best meet the requirements at both the producer and packer level, a basic system consisting of a metal or plastic tag inscribed with a unique identification standardized number, bar code and logo (maple leaf in a circle) identifying authenticity, is recommended. This system will offer the flexibility to administer additional options for identification providing the criteria of the national ID system are attained.” 

Also recommended was a nine-digit tag numbering system, starting with the country code and consistent with International Organization for Standardization (ISO) standards – elements of which are still in place today. Tag trials were also discussed to test retention, readability, reliability, and the overall quality of the product.  

Communications to industry, funding and government regulations were also on the table at the AGM. 


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