U.S. rolls out second bid at livestock tracking plan

A livestock tracking plan introduced on Tuesday aims to improve the United States’ ability to combat disease outbreaks faster, marking the U.S. government’s second attempt on such a system after an earlier plan fizzled out over cost and privacy concerns. 

The plan introduced by the U.S. Agriculture Department (USDA) could reduce the time it takes to track a disease outbreak from up to several months to as little as a few days or weeks — reducing costs and disruptions to the industry, government and animal owners.

USDA said its proposal would embrace a flexible approach that would close gaps in current disease response efforts by allowing states to develop tracing systems that are best for them and their producers.

“We would not be proposing this if we weren’t confident that it would do a better job than we have done in the past in responding to a disease outbreak,” U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack told reporters.

The new system is expected to allow the U.S. to regain a competitive advantage it had lost to other countries such as Australia that have traceability programs in place. Vilsack said once the USDA is able to implement its plan, it will be easier to promote U.S. livestock overseas.

The National Pork Producers Council supported the measure. The group said the ability to quickly trace diseases and exposed animals during an outbreak would reduce the financial burden on the industry and save taxpayers millions. 

An effective traceability program would allow U.S. pork to compete more effectively in the international market place with those countries that have already implemented traceability programs, said Doug Wolf, NPPC’s president.

Interstate certificate

The USDA proposal would require livestock moving between states to be officially identified and accompanied by an interstate certificate of veterinary inspection or other documentation.

The department said it welcomed the use of low-cost technology and outlines approved forms of official identification for each species, such as metal eartags for cattle. It also said it would allow states shipping and receiving livestock to agree upon alternative forms of identification such as brands or tattoos to help identify the animals.

The government first embraced a nationwide traceback system as a response in late 2003 to the discovery of the first U.S. case of BSE, which affects older cattle.

The voluntary program was designed to track the home farm and herdmates of sick animals within 48 hours of an animal disease outbreak by assigning identification numbers to animals as they first left the farm.

But the program, which cost more than $125 million (all figures US$) was hounded by questions on whether it was cost-effective, if information collected would remain confidential and whether there were simpler ways to do the same thing.

At one point, only a third of U.S. livestock producers had registered for the traceback system, too few for the system to be effective. Congressional lawmakers criticized the plan and reduced funding.

USDA estimated the new program proposed on Tuesday would cost $14.5 million per year. Vilsack called on lawmakers to embrace the new plan, though he said the benefits, such as minimizing testing and costs on producers during an outbreak and expanding the market for U.S. products, would be a good selling point to get funding.

“We think we can make the case that the investments to be made by Congress will be better received and better implemented and better utilized than the investments that were made under pervious system,” said Vilsack. 

The animal traceability proposal will be open to a 90-day public comment period. USDA still must finalize the rule.

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