The USDA is ratcheting up its efforts to implement a national animal identification system. Secretary of Agriculture Mike Johanns has announced that four new phases of the overall plan, initiated in 2004, have been finalized, citing increasing pressures on timelines due to global marketplace demands.

Johanns said timetables and benchmarks for the system have been established, based partly on feedback from industry producers in recent months. Foremost, Johanns said the animal tracking database technology, called the Animal Trace Processing System, is on schedule to be in place by early 2007 with a goal of achieving full producer participation by 2009.

The technology will enable state and federal animal health officials to query private databases during any disease investigation.

Johanns described the schedules as “aggressive” for a system that hopes to eventually be capable of tracking every animal from birth through processing. “At any given time you have 90 million to 100 million head of cattle in the United States. There has never been a system put in place that would deal with that kind of magnitude,” he said. “And we are talking about a system that literally says from the time of birth on through the entire chain, we will trace that animal until we can ascertain where the animal finally was processed. So, (it's) just a huge undertaking.”

By June, Johanns said, the USDA plans to begin entering agreements with private organizations that have cooperative databases.

“This system will… help the U.S. livestock industry remain competitive. Traceability is being used as a marketing tool by several countries,” Johanns said. “We know how important the export market is to livestock producers, and we want to retain our competitiveness in the international arena.”

However, the USDA safeguard plans — spurred by findings of mad cow's disease (bovine spongiform encephalopath) cases in the United States over the past couple of years, which led to a blockade of what was a lucrative U.S. beef export business with Japan — have not been without criticism.

Congresswoman Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., a ranking member on the House Appropriations Agriculture Subcommittee, said that because the animal ID program is founded on voluntary action, it falls short of a realistic effective system.

“The bottom line is that absent mandatory participation, the effectiveness of a national animal ID system is compromised,” DeLauro said.

Johanns has said that in setting goals for the animal ID system, officials determined that any program should not be unnecessarily burdensome to producers, should not unduly increase the size of government and should be flexible enough to interface with a variety of technologies.

“The worst service we could provide would be to turn loose a system that says we're not going to have any flexibility, it's going to the Washington way or it's going to be the highway. I can almost guarantee that that would bring this system to failure.”


e-mail: abell@farmpress.com