USDA offers new approach for tracing animal diseases

Aug 9, 2011 (CIDRAP News) – The US Department of Agriculture (USDA) today proposed a new system to improve the tracing of diseased and at-risk livestock, aiming to replace a previous national animal identification program that met widespread opposition from livestock producers.

The new approach calls for requiring official identification for livestock only when they are moved across state lines, and it offers some flexibility concerning what form the identification takes, the USDA said in a press release.

At a press conference, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said the traceability system will improve access to export markets for US livestock producers, according to press reports today. "Other countries have been using [traceability] as a way to gain a market advantage. We believe this takes that market advantage away," said Vilsack, according to a report today by Meatingplace, a meat industry Web site.

The new tracking system will replace the National Animal Identification System (NAIS), a voluntary program that was launched in 2004 but abandoned in 2009.

The NAIS called for giving every animal an identification number at birth, registering all livestock facilities, and creating tracking databases managed by states and industry groups. Many producers viewed the system as too rigid and a threat to proprietary information, according to a USDA fact sheet about the new proposal.

Vilsack said he has listened to stakeholders' concerns about traceability over the past 2 years. "We are proposing a flexible approach in which states and tribes can develop systems for tracing animals that work best for them and for producers in their jurisdiction," he said in the press release. "This approach offers great flexibility at the state and local level and addresses gaps in our disease response efforts."

Under the proposed rule, livestock that are moved interstate in most cases would have to have official identification and be accompanied by an interstate certificate of veterinary inspection or other documents, such as owner-shipper statements or brand certifications, the USDA said.

"The rule encourages the use of low-cost technology and specifies approved forms of identification for each species, such as metal eartags for cattle," the USDA said. But the agency added that, because of the prevalence of other identifications in certain regions, "shipping and receiving states or tribes are permitted to agree upon alternative forms of identification such as brands or tattoos."

The ability to know where diseased and at-risk animals are and where they've been is important for facilitating a rapid response to animal disease outbreaks, the USDA noted. "An efficient and accurate animal disease traceability system helps reduce the number of animals involved in an investigation, reduces the time needed to respond, and decreases the cost to producers and the government," the statement said.

The effort to develop a national animal identification program was spurred largely by the discovery of the first US case of bovine spongiform encephalopathy, or mad cow disease, in December 2003. After that discovery and two subsequent cases, it took weeks for investigators to track down other cattle that might have been exposed to the disease, and the news damaged American beef exports.

USDA documents released today said the proposed rule is intended to control animal diseases and is not a food safety initiative; it will not make it possible to link a meat product to a particular animal. But it will benefit consumers by helping to ensure that healthy animals can continue to be processed.

The USDA said the new traceability program will be "owned, led and administered by the states and Tribal Nations with federal support focused entirely on animal disease traceability."

The proposal will be published in the Federal Register on Aug 11, and the USDA will take comments on it until Nov 9, officials said.

Statements from at least some livestock producer groups today sounded guardedly positive about the USDA plan.

Elizabeth Parker, chief veterinarian for the National Cattleman's Beef Association (NCBA), said in a statement, "NCBA commends APHIS [the USDA Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service] for its recent efforts to listen to concerns of America's cattlemen in developing this traceability program. . . . We will carefully analyze and comment on APHIS's proposed ADT [animal disease traceability] rule."

The National Milk Producers Federation called the USDA announcement "an important development, one that allows the entire livestock industry . . . to collectively focus on what is possible." The group said it looked forward to reviewing the proposal and working with the USDA on it.

See also:

Aug 9 USDA press release

USDA fact sheet on the proposed rule

Aug 9 NCBA statement about the new rule

Aug 9 National Milk Producers Federation statement

Aug 9 R-CALF USA statement

Apr 7, 2006, CIDRAP News story about the NAIS

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