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Watering Down the National Animal Identification System

16:33PM May 04, 2011

USDA is doing all it can to make its animal traceability program politically acceptable, it seems. But the result might be so wishy-washy that nobody will like it anyhow.

Let’s be honest with ourselves about government efforts: It’s hard to please everybody with a program that matters. So the smart thing is to come up with a program that doesn’t matter. Then one side will be glad the government did something and the other side will be glad that what it did wasn’t much. That’s what Washington considers political genius, and it’s what USDA is probably going to deliver.

Granted, if ever a topic cried out for poltical compromise, it is animal ID. There are a lot of people— commercial producers, government do-gooders and animal health professionals—who think it is crazy that the U.S. lags so far behind other countries in being able to trace where cattle come from and where they go. From an animal health perspective, the program would make it so much easier to trace diseases like bovine spongiform encephalopathy, foot-and-mouth disease (FMD), brucellosis and tuberculosis. From a marketing standpoint, most exporters and a growing number of retailers want to be able to tell buyers they can trace animals back to the source. To many, the cost of a few ear tags and some software would be a small price to pay.For others, however, the few dollars’ expense and the bookkeeping requirements would be a burden too onerous.

Frankly, I’m in the first camp. I think animal traceability adds enough value to more than pay for its modest cost. My premises are registered. I put EID tags in because they’re so cheap and I like to have them as a backup to lost visual tags. If I send cattle to the right packer, I get back information on their fi nal value. What I’d like is for the system to catch up so that I could haul a trailer load of cattle to the sale barn and still get credit for the records. A good ID system would do that.

As anti-government as I am, even I can see an argument for requiring packers to report back to previous owners of each individual animal. I’d like to see a system where every calf is entered into a national database and stays there until the packer (or renderer, I suppose) enters a postmortem report.

What a valuable resource that would be to help producers do better and good ones get rewarded! For most professional producers, it would require a minimal amount of extra trouble and expense. The big investment would come later down the line.

I don’t really think the government should require it—I’m not in the “there ought to be a law for everything” camp. I suspect that a system will evolve in the free market. It’s already here for many of the most successful operations. But poor me and you. The value that accrues to our tags and records—date of birth, genetic background, feed regimen and vaccination history—are lost if the auction we use can’t easily collect and convey the information to buyers who can, in turn, remarket the knowledge.

This ID debate has played out as a “big” versus “little” argument, but the fact is that it is the little guys who stand to gain the most from a universal program. A rancher marketing truckload lots can find a system to join and buyers willing to pay. A guy hauling a few head to town lacks that option, and the prices he gets refl ect that. Most of the fed cattle marketed in this country every year are younger than 20 months. They just don’t have the papers to prove it.

Those cattle are worth more because there are markets that won’t accept cattle—or their byproducts—without a paper trail. That said, it will be interesting to see what comes out later this spring when USDA announces its “final” rule on animal traceability. The livestock auctions—which will have to do most of the investing and work in such a program—were bemused by the early word.

USDA has made it clear that any program will apply only to cattle that are 18 months or older being moved interstate. Each state will apparently be expected to develop its own program for in-state movement.

The plan is to let the program run a while and then include the younger cattle.

Still a compromise. Like I said, it’s a compromise and, like some of the other programs coming out of this administration, hard to assess. How will it help address that paradigm we’ve all talked about: feeder calves bought in one state, mixed with calves in another state and then shipped to a feedyard in a third state, where it turns out they have FMD?

That is the threat that most worries me. Having seen firsthand what the FMD outbreak did in England and watching what’s going on now in Korea, and having been back and forth through customs enough to know that nothing but blind luck and even blinder customs offi cials are keeping FMD out of this country, I think we’re overdue.

As you know, nobody buys meat from a country with FMD. Last year, we sold $4 billion in beef and variety meats outside the U.S. That would disappear in an instant if the disease showed up in this huge, open, country of ours.

A universal traceability program wouldn’t keep it from happening, but it would sure help mitigate the damage if the authorities could effi ciently trace movement and exposure. I expect nothing in this final rule to deal with that, and the anti-ID folks are already demanding that USDA drop the feeder cattle proposal. Politics is a funny thing. The industry should get on with developing programs for those who see the value.

Follow this link to read USDA-APHIS Animal Disease Traceability Comprehensive Report and Implementation Plan.