USDA plans to implement a national animal identification system this year, first on a voluntary basis and eventually with specific requirements for identifying all animals, it was revealed during a recent hearing held in Washington, D.C., by the Subcommittee on Marketing, Inspection and Product Promotion of the U.S. Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry.

The subcommittee's hearing comes amid intensified public interest in developing a national animal identification system. This interest has been spurred by increased animal disease outbreaks throughout the world and the discovery this past December of a BSE-positive cow in Washington state.

“Our implementation would begin with an assessment this winter and spring of the existing premises and animal number allocation systems now in use,” USDA Undersecretary Bill Hawks told the subcommittee. “This review would identify, validate and verify the capabilities of current systems in operation and determine the capacity of any of these systems to serve as a national premises and animal number allocator and repository.”

Based on the review, he added, USDA would select the most promising infrastructure to fund and develop a national system.

The primary purpose of animal identification systems, says Hawks, is to address veterinary and animal health issues. But no animal identification program by itself will prevent the introduction of animal disease, insure safe food, or prevent a recall, he says.

While there currently is no nationwide animal identification system in the United States, some regional voluntary identification programs are in place, and others currently are being developed and tested, he says.

In addition to programs directly funded by USDA, a more comprehensive U.S. animal identification plan has been developed by an industry-state-federal partnership, including more than 100 professionals representing more than 70 associations, says Hawks.

The United States Animal Identification Plan (USAIP) is an information system and infrastructure that enables the identification within 48 hours of all animals and premises potentially exposed to a disease.

The United States is not alone in developing animal identification systems, he says. Most developed countries either already have adopted or are planning to adopt some system to identify and trace the movement of livestock within their borders. The European Union has adopted the most comprehensive program of animal identification and tracking.

There is no “one size fits all” technology for such a system, says Hawks. “Rather than focus on a specific technology, we should focus on the design of the system. Once it is designed, the market will determine which technologies will be the most appropriate to meet the needs of the system.”

In designing a system, says Hawks, several important factors need to be considered, including the diversity and complexity of U.S. animal industries and the lack of producers' experience with animal identification for a large number of U.S. producers.

Imported and exported animals also would require identification in such a system, he says. Under a national animal identification system, he says, producers and processors would be responsible for registering animals and recording their movement over an animal's lifespan.

“Producers, marketers and livestock processors would have to be educated on the premise and livestock numbering systems, the technologies for recording an animal's movements, and other aspects of the program. To meet the educational needs of livestock producers and processors, USDA will need to work in concert with states, organizations and other stakeholders.”

Uncertainty over the confidentiality and accessibility of information in a national database, he says, may cause some livestock producers and processors to delay participation in a national system. Federal legislation may be needed to address these concerns, he adds.

“Our goal is to create an effective, uniform, consistent and efficient national system. The system should allow producers, to the extent possible, the flexibility to use current systems or adopt new ones. Producers should not be burdened with multiple identification numbers, systems or requirements.”

The system, says Hawks, also must not preclude producers from being able to use it with production management systems that respond to market incentives. “We want a system that will be compatible with the alternative management programs now being used to improve animal health and quality.”

A national identification system must not unduly increase the role and size of the government, he says. “The president's budget proposal for fiscal year 2005 requests $33 million to fund that year's activities for system implementation. No funds have been appropriated for fiscal 2004. Since we plan to initiate implementation during fiscal 2004, we are considering alternative methods of funding.”

Mike John, vice president of the National Cattlemen's Beef Association, told the subcommittee his group has been engaged in the development of identification systems for almost 10 years. In 2000, the NCBA adopted standards as an organization so the identification industry would have “some commonality.”

“Recent discussions have focused heavily on technology — the technological capability to track animals from farm to plate — using the newest and most effective technology or finding new uses for existing technology. But technology is not the start of the discussion,” says John.

Animal identification is a tool, says John, that can be used to identify and isolate animals and locations that have been associated with animal disease.

“We have had a mandatory animal identification system in our country in the recent past — the brucellosis eradication program. This program required that animals be vaccinated for brucellosis, tattooed, and tagged with a permanent metal identification clip tag.

“While this program was established to eradicate brucellosis, the result was a traceability program that has helped USDA and states identify other diseases such as tuberculosis. Though the early days of the brucellosis program were difficult for all parties, the program has successfully eliminated brucellosis from all but a few places in the United States,” he says.

The downside of the success of the brucellosis program, notes John, is that, as states have become brucellosis free, vaccinations for the disease ceased, and, as a result, so has tagging with the metal clip tags.

“Identification should be used in conjunction with our existing animal disease surveillance and monitoring infrastructure. It is not a substitute for that infrastructure. We do not wish to follow the example of Europe, where too much emphasis was placed on identification and not enough on infrastructure.

“Though much is made of the many EU tracking systems, the EU has been subject to a BSE epidemic, foot-and-mouth disease outbreak, dioxin contamination, and PCB contamination, all due in part to a weak science-based infrastructure.”

The NCBA, says John, will oppose efforts to pay for an animal identification system by cutting the existing animal health infrastructure.

The National Farmers Union, says Ronald Ostberg of Montana, has several major concerns about the animal identification proposals being considered, including the ability of an identification program to enhance food safety and animal health, the cost burden on livestock producers of implementing and maintaining an ID system, the confidentiality of proprietary information collected, producer liability protection, and the relationship of an animal identification program to country-of-origin labeling.

“Most observers would agree that an animal identification program could provide a valuable trace-back capability to help identify the source of many food safety problems,” says Ostberg. “However, we must recognize that an identification system does not by itself improve food safety, resolve animal health issues, or convey new information to consumers, particularly if the identification information ends at the processor level.”

Unless the identification program is coupled with expanded capacity for testing, new requirements governing the transfer of products from the processor to the retailer/consumer, and an enhanced product recall system, it remains questionable whether any identification system would meet the expectations of producers, processors or consumers, he says.

The National Farmers Union, he says, believes USDA Secretary Ann Veneman should immediately implement mandatory country-of-origin labeling, as directed in the 2002 farm bill.

“The secretary has the congressional authority and discretion to implement this program in a common-sense manner that bears minimum burden and cost on producers, processors and retailers. Despite the two-year delay of implementation of country-of-origin labeling included in the fiscal year 2005 omnibus appropriations bill, the law still requires USDA to move forward in promulgating a final rule by Sept. 30, 2004,” says Ostberg.

After the labeling program has been implemented and an animal identification program is up and running, he says, it will be necessary to coordinate the two programs so that U.S. livestock producers will not find themselves “paying the bill” for the benefit of processors and retailers without achieving any market benefits.


e-mail: dmuzzi@primediabusiness.com