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Wednesday, February 10, 2010

USDA announces plans to revise animal ID system

Issue Date: February 10, 2010

By Ching Lee
Assistant Editor

Responding to criticism from what it called a "vast majority" of ranchers who spoke out at public forums, the U.S. Department of Agriculture announced last week it is revising its policy on the National Animal Identification System in favor of a more "flexible, coordinated approach" to animal disease traceability.

U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said the new policy allows states to administer their own trace-back program that focuses only on animals that move across state lines.

Rather than mandating a national, one-size-fits-all system for all producers, the USDA would work with states to adopt specific methods that work best for their local needs, he added.

The changes come after a series of public meetings last year in which producers and other stakeholders raised concerns about the old system, including cost, confidentiality, liability and privacy. Some groups also complained that the system benefits only large-scale producers and that the animal ID system is unnecessary because existing animal identification systems are sufficient.

Citing the feedback, Vilsack said "it is apparent that a new strategy for animal disease traceability is needed."

The ability to identify and track livestock became a top priority for USDA following the nation's first case of bovine spongiform encephalopathy in 2003. The department proposed the system in 2004 and subsequently spent more than $120 million trying to implement it. However, only 36 percent of producers to date have signed up for the program.

While many producers say they recognize the importance of having a system in place to protect animal health and enhance disease control, the USDA plan to tag and track millions of livestock ignited opposition and controversy among ranchers across the nation.

Vilsack said under his new plan, USDA would work with states to create new federal rules and a basic blueprint for the new system. But states would ultimately decide how they want to design their program to meet federal standards.

He said he plans to re-establish an advisory committee with state animal health leaders to assist in evaluating commodity-based animal disease traceability approaches.

Jeff Fowle, a Siskiyou County cattle rancher and chairman of the California Farm Bureau Federation beef advisory committee, said the new USDA plan to give states more say in the process appears to address some of producers' concerns and may result in "a better program than if it had been implemented completely on the national level."

"The changes will probably lead to a more likely chance of the program being successful," he said. "I think it's very important doing this at a state and tribal level, because it will be more manageable."

"There was a lot of discussion about the program, as many of our Farm Bureau members had valid concerns about how it would be implemented," said Elisa Noble, CFBF director of livestock, public lands and natural resources. Farm Bureau policy supports having a national animal identification system on a species-by-species basis. But it also says that such a system should be cost effective and that the federal government "should use existing identification systems to the best extent possible rather than reinventing the wheel," said Noble.

Fowle said it is in every state's best interest to have traceability when there is any kind of animal disease outbreak, "because the longer there's uncertainty, the greater the economic downfall, not only for that particular industry but for that state."

Under Vilsack's plan, USDA will maintain a list of official identification devices, which can be updated or expanded based on need. Many official identification options already are available, including branding and metal and radio frequency tags.

To ensure compatibility, USDA said it will work with states to establish standards and guidelines, as well as provide free or low-cost tags as an option. Information technology systems developed through the national animal ID system will also be made available to states that want to use them.

According to USDA, animal disease traceability information will be held by the states under the new program, and USDA will have access to this information only when an animal health event arises.

The department estimates that the new program will be less than the $228 million per year that a National Animal Identification System benefit-cost analysis outlined for a full animal disease traceability system, because it would cover only animals moving in interstate commerce and offer flexibility in tracing methods.

Matt Byrne, executive vice president of the California Cattlemen's Association, said the majority of California cattle do end up leaving the state at some point, either to out-of-state feedlots or to be processed.

Some ranchers also move their cattle out of state on a seasonal basis for grazing purposes, he added. He also noted that many producers already use some form of identification system to ensure animal health and take advantage of value-added marketing opportunities.

"With that said, the fact of the matter is, we support market forces rather than government mandates playing the role in how that all comes together," said Byrne.

He said it is clear that USDA had hit a roadblock with the old program and that it is appropriate for the department to step back and rethink its approach.

"It certainly marks a shift from where we've been, and there has been a lot of discussion as of late about what the direction of the program was going to be," he said. "One thing that can be said here is that it seems USDA is moving towards a more flexible means to meet their goal and focusing on something that's more manageable in the shorter term."

Michael Marsh, chief executive officer of Western United Dairymen, said historically California dairy farmers have brought cattle in from out of state, but how much of that practice will continue is uncertain due to their concerns about cattle being infected with tuberculosis.

With regards to the new USDA approach, Marsh said the original national animal ID system "really wasn't a big deal" for dairy producers because they already have good traceability and recordkeeping for their animals. He said he expects the changes will have little effect on California dairies.

"From our dairy industry's perspective, I think we're probably in pretty good shape here in California, because it just makes good business sense for us to keep good track of all the animals we have," he said. "But at the same time, I think it's probably always better that it be voluntary than to have something mandatory."

USDA indicates it intends to provide technical assistance and funding to states to develop the new traceability system. Information collected as part of the National Animal Identification System will remain in place to be used as needed for trace-back during disease outbreaks.

The department will convene a meeting next month with states to receive input on what should be part of the new traceability framework and eventual regulations. It will also accept nominations for the advisory committee, with goals of having this group begin work by summer.

USDA officials say they hope to publish the proposed rules on animal disease traceability by next winter, followed by a 90-day comment period. A final rule will then be made.

Ria de Grassi, CFBF director of livestock, animal health and welfare, said Farm Bureau will work with other agricultural organizations in the state to push for California representation on the USDA advisory committee on animal health.

"Clearly, California should have a seat at that table, given the significance of the livestock and poultry sectors here," she said. "We also have international ports and a border with Mexico that puts us in a particularly important position for sharing perspective of industry on a committee of that nature."

(Ching Lee is an assistant editor of Ag Alert. She may be contacted at

Permission for use is granted, however, credit must be made to the California Farm Bureau Federation when reprinting this item.

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