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USDA Scraps Bush-era Animal Disease Traceability System

WASHINGTON, DC, February 8, 2010 (ENS) – In an effort to win support from ranchers and farmers, the U.S. Department of Agriculture will develop a new framework for animal disease traceability, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack announced Friday.

“After concluding our listening tour on the National Animal Identification System in 15 cities across the country, receiving thousands of comments from the public and input from states, tribal nations, industry groups, and representatives for small and organic farmers, it is apparent that a new strategy for animal disease traceability is needed,” said Vilsack.

“I’ve decided to revise the prior policy and offer a new approach to animal disease traceability with changes that respond directly to the feedback we heard,” Vilsack said.

Ear tags identify these California cows (Photo by Laura Ferriera)

The National Animal Identification System was created by the Bush administration in 2004 after the discovery in late 2003 of a cow infected with mad cow disease.

Participation in the identification system was voluntary, but the goal was to give every animal, or group of animals, an identification number that would be entered into a database.

Knowing where diseased and at-risk animals are, where they have been, and when, would allow officials to mount a rapid response when animal disease events take place.

Animal disease traceability does not prevent disease. But knowing where diseased and at-risk animals are is indispensable during an emergency response and for ongoing disease programs, says the USDA.

Traceability helps to reduce the number of animal deaths and preserve animal health when outbreaks occur in certain parts of the country, the USDA maintains, additing that a traceability system can limit the number of animal owners impacted by an outbreak and reduce the economic strain on owners and affected communities.

The new framework, announced at the National Association of State Departments of Agriculture Mid-Year meeting, provides the basic tenets of an improved animal disease traceability capability in the United States.

USDA’s new system will:

  • Only apply to animals moved in interstate commerce
  • Be administered by the states and tribal nations to provide more flexibility
  • Encourage the use of lower-cost technology
  • Be implemented transparently through federal regulations and the full rulemaking process

USDA officials said the states would craft many aspects of a new system, including requirements for identifying livestock.

One of USDA’s first steps will be to convene a forum with animal health leaders, states and tribal nations. Additionally, USDA will revamp the Secretary’s Advisory Committee on Animal Health to address specific issues, such as confidentiality and liability.

“One of my main goals for this new approach is to build a collaborative process for shaping and implementing our framework for animal disease traceability,” said Vilsack. “We are committed to working in partnership with states, tribal nations and industry in the coming months to address many of the details of this framework, and giving ample opportunity for farmers and ranchers and the public to provide us with continued input through this process.”

The new direction met with a mixed reaction from the regulated community.

“We are extremely disappointed by the failure to implement the National Animal Identification System that has been in development and by the prospect of waiting additional years before the U.S. has an effective animal identification system in place,” said Patrick Boyle of the American Meat Institute, the oldest and largest national trade association, representing packers and processors of meat and poultry products and their suppliers.

But R-CALF USA President Max Thornsberry, a Missouri veterinarian, thanked Secretary Vilsack for his “receptiveness to the interests of U.S. cattle farmers and ranchers.”

“The Secretary has signaled he is going back to the drawing board to develop a new system that does not infringe upon the rights and privileges of U.S. cattle farmers and ranchers as did NAIS,” Thornsberry said. “This is exactly what we’ve been urging USDA to do for the past five years. Our organization has expended considerable resources trying to put a halt to NAIS, and we’re pleased that our members’ efforts have finally come to fruition.”

R-CALF USA, the Ranchers-Cattlemen Action Legal Fund, United Stockgrowers of America, represents thousands of independent U.S. cattle producers.

Thornsberry said NAIS was conceived and supported by international trade organizations, ear tag manufacturers and multinational meatpackers, and was all about controlling cattle farmers and ranchers and cattle markets, not about controlling and preventing animal diseases.

“Friday’s announcement is a major victory for independent cattle producers, as it marks the first time in a very long time that USDA did not suppress the interests of cattle producers in order to accommodate the self-interests of the dominant meatpackers and their allies,” Thornsberry said.

R-CALF USA Animal Identification Committee Chair Kenny Fox said that the eight-point plan R-CALF USA submitted last year to USDA as an alternative to NAIS fits within the new framework described by Vilsack on Friday.

“Our plan called for the control of disease-related animal identification databases to be vested with state and tribal animal health officials, flexibility in the use of preexisting animal identification devices such as brucellosis tags, no federally mandated premises registration and a renewed emphasis in preventing the introduction of diseases at our borders, all of which are consistent with what USDA announced on Friday,” said Fox.

The Organic Consumers Association is pleased with the USDA’s new direction, saying, “NAIS provides no food safety benefit and threatens small-scale organic farmers and ranchers, while accelerating farm consolidation and benefitting factory farms.”

NAIS creates expensive and time-consuming tagging and reporting requirements for small farms, said the Organic Consumers Association.

“NAIS requirements are particularly expensive and burdensome for those farmers raising sustainable livestock on pasture,” the association said. “Ultimately, this will reduce the availability of grass-fed meats, eggs, and milk. In many cases, the tagging and reporting costs for small farmers would exceed the value of the animals.”

“Certified organic and pasture raised animals would likely be forced into confinement for ranchers and farmers adequately implement the ID program,” the association warned. “Without access to pasture, many ranches will be disqualified from the USDA National Organic Program and consumers will have less choice when purchasing meat and dairy.”

The USDA said that during the two years it could take to design and implement a new system, the federal agency will accelerate actions to lessen the risk from diseases, such as tuberculosis, posed by imported animals. The USDA will initiate and update analyses on how animal diseases travel into the country, improve response capabilities, and focus on greater collaboration and analyses with states and industry on potential disease risk overall.

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