Advocacy in action
Animal identification: Lack of direction leaves US livestock vulnerable

After 6 years and over $140 million, the USDA announced on February 5, 2010, that the department was abandoning the National Animal Identification System (NAIS) in favor of a new framework for animal traceability in the United States. This framework will shift the responsibility for developing, implementing, and maintaining an effective animal traceability system to the states and tribal nations with support from the federal government. Only those animals moved in interstate commerce will be required to participate in the program.

While USDA will define the standards for the traceability program and determine the measures of compliance, it will be up to the states and tribal nations to determine the specifics of the system affecting their local producers. The USDA held a meeting with state officials and leaders from the tribal nations in March to discuss the new framework. In addition, the USDA is planning to re-activate the Secretary’s Advisory Committee on Animal Health to facilitate input from producers and other stakeholders on issues associated with evaluating the systems implemented by the states and tribal nations.

The US swine industry strongly supports a mandatory national animal-identification system for all pertinent livestock species and has developed the Swine ID Plan, which modified existing swine identification protocols, to comply with the NAIS guidelines. The National Pork Board now requires that producers have a premises identification number to participate in the Pork Quality Assurance Plus program, which is required by most pork processors. As a result, over 85% of swine producers have registered their livestock premises. The USDA has vowed to retain the current premises-registration system as an option for use in the new traceability framework. The swine industry has met with state animal-health officials from the key swine-producing states and asked that they support the use of the Swine ID Plan as the basis for any traceability program affecting the swine industry.

The problem is that this move sets the effort to establish an effective animal-traceability system back to somewhere closer to the starting point than the finish line. The rulemaking process is notoriously slow, taking many months or, more often, years to accomplish. In addition, the challenges associated with getting the states and tribal nations to accomplish the task of developing and implementing their own traceability systems, enacting any legislative or regulatory actions necessary at the local level, and securing the necessary funding to support such an effort, will be daunting. Without strong leadership and prioritization from the Secretary of Agriculture, it is not out of the realm of possibility that we could be looking at another administration being empowered before a traceability system comes to fruition. And then, of course, a new administration could choose to scrap it all again or delay the process to conduct more listening sessions or further study.

The US livestock industry needs an effective national animal-identification and tracking system now rather than later. The inability to rapidly locate diseased and susceptible populations of animals leaves animal agriculture vulnerable whether you own one cow or a million pigs. A disease outbreak in the national herd will limit your ability to freely participate in livestock production. Registering your premises, identifying your animals, and recording their movements doesn’t have to be onerous or expensive.

Recognizing the importance of moving forward with a traceability system, the AASV Board of Directors recently sent a letter to Secretary Vilsack expressing concern with the USDA’s delay in implementation and change in direction and emphasis. The letter also urged Secretary Vilsack to prioritize the development and implementation of an effective traceability system.

The US swine industry has led the way on adoption of a species-based approach to animal identification. The industry remains committed to moving forward with the Swine ID Plan to ensure that state and federal animal-health officials have the tools necessary to rapidly respond in an animal-health emergency to promote business continuity and the protection of US livestock. We encourage the USDA to provide leadership and guidance to establish a set of unified standards, compliance measures, and the necessary funding to support efforts to develop, implement, and maintain a robust national system of animal traceability.

-- Harry Snelson, DVM