“The landscape surrounding animal disease traceability has changed dramatically in the past decade, and producers across the nation recognize that a comprehensive system is the best protection against a devastating disease outbreak like foot-and-mouth disease,” says Greg Ibach, undersecretary for the USDA’s marketing and regulatory programs.
“We have a responsibility to these producers, and American agriculture as a whole, to make animal disease traceability what it should be — a modern system that tracks animals from birth to slaughter, using affordable technology that allows USDA to quickly trace sick and exposed animals to stop disease spread.”
Plenty of questions remain concerning how or when the animal disease traceability (ADT) program can encompass more of the nation’s cattle population and provide enhanced disease surveillance and traceback.
For their part, though, USDA officials filled in some of the gaps at September’s Livestock Traceability Forum hosted by the National Institute for Animal Agriculture (NIAA).
Specifically, the agency announced four ADT goals starting in fiscal year 2019.
First, advancing electronic sharing of data among federal and state animal health officials, veterinarians and industry. That includes sharing basic animal disease traceability data with the federal animal health events repository.
Tied to that is using electronic ID tags (EID) for animals requiring individual identification, in order to make the transmission of data more efficient.
“We believe the broad industry adoption of individual animal EID is critical to the advancement of traceability,” says Jack Shere, DVM, U.S. chief veterinary officer. “I think we’d all agree that electronic identification paves the way for more rapid and efficient and effective means for animal disease traceability.”
Since ADT began, USDA provided free metal (“brite”) tags for cattle required to be identified for interstate movement (bulls and females older than 18 months). Those tags may not suffer much in terms of loss, but they’ve proven costly and ineffective. The cost comes with how much time and effort must be expended in trying to read the tags. Even when they can be read, human error means that too many times, the numbers are recorded incorrectly.
So, USDA plans to phase out their use in ADT by the end of next year. Instead, USDA will pay a portion of the cost of electronic tags for producers.
“We recognize that the cost of EID is one primary drawback for producers. Stakeholders have repeatedly told us that they need help in the transition to electronic ID,” Shere says.
“Therefore, to assist with that transition, USDA will begin to cost-share for electronic ID. USDA is proposing a three-way cost share for the cost of electronic ID. USDA would cover one-third of the price of electronic tags. States could then elect to cover or split the remaining costs with veterinarians and producers. Under the three-way cost share, we anticipate the average cost to the cattle producer for an EID tag could be around 50 cents or less.”
Shere added that USDA is working to make the process easier for producers to obtain premises identification numbers.
“I think it’s important that producers participate in the cost because if you invest your own money, you’re more vested in trying to figure out how you can get benefit from that system,” Ibach says. “If you’re just given something, it doesn’t mean much to you in terms of trying to derive value or success out that system.”
But USDA will not define what specific technology or technologies livestock industries choose to adopt.
“We’re not going to define the technologies. Industry is going to work together to define those technologies, because we know that certain segments of different industries want to use different technologies — and need to use different technologies to move at the speed of commerce at their locations,” says Ibach.
Another USDA goal is working with states and industry toward a system where animal health certificates are electronically transmitted from private veterinarians to state animal health officials.
As a former director of agriculture in Nebraska, Ibach explains that health certificates often showed up, one month, two months or more after animals had already moved into the state.
Connecting the dots
Along the way, USDA also wants to enhance the ability to track animals from birth to slaughter through a system that allows tracking data points to be connected.
“Another key component of our plan is sharing a few key data elements from existing state and industry animal movement databases with our animal health events repository,” says Ibach. “That way, if an outbreak occurs, we can quickly find the information we need to locate and identify potentially diseased or at-risk animals.
“This helps avoid unnecessary quarantines that could impact producers’ livelihoods. And by linking to that information instead of housing it ourselves, we maintain our stakeholders’ privacy.”
So, USDA wants access to necessary data for animal health purposes but has no desire to hold the data.
Ibach emphasized USDA goals reflect the core themes resulting from a state and federal animal disease traceability working group that developed 14 key points for advancing traceability.
They are also in keeping with feedback USDA Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) received at stakeholder meetings held across the country to hear from industry and producers directly.
Indemnity, liability, traceability
Since discussions about a national traceability system began two decades ago, liability is a concern often expressed. The thinking runs something like this: “If there’s a food safety or animal disease problem that’s ultimately traced back to my ranch or farm, but I did nothing to create the problem, how liable am I? And, if the ID system means they can track cattle more effectively, doesn’t that mean I’m increasing the odds a problem can be traced back to me?”
First of all, Ibach says, producers are fooling themselves if they believe they avoid such a risk without electronic identification.
“There are enough records at the livestock auction market and feedlot level; there’s brands on animals; and the packer knows what lot was harvested at what time, and what lot numbers got shipped to what retailer,” Ibach explains.
In other words, current odds favor state and federal officials tracking cattle back to the ranch. Electronic ID would increase the speed of tracking and likely mean fewer producers would have to be bothered.
“If you don’t have a good traceability system, you cast a wider net, you do lot testing [at the packinghouse],” Shere explains. “Instead of going back to one farm, you go back to 20 or 30 farms — whatever’s in the lot. It’s more costly to producers and taxpayers, and takes longer to get there.”
Doing the right thing
Said another way, producers documenting that they’re doing the right thing arm themselves against liability. Ibach uses the example of a producer involved in a value-based marketing system that employs traceability and third-party auditing.
“They have a basis to be able to show what feedstuffs they’re using, and how they account for any medicine or antibiotics they’re using within that system,” Ibach explains. “In some ways, I think that’s a way for them to prove that they have a system of responsibility in place to be able to protect themselves.”
Incidentally, Ibach also mentioned that livestock indemnity programs in the future will likely be connected to biosecurity plans. Though unsaid, identification and traceability seem like implicit components.
“Moving forward with indemnity, one of the expectations the Office of Management and Budget [OMB] has of USDA is that there are some biosecurity measures in place,” Ibach explains. “So, one of the things we’re going to be asking is for state animal health officials to have some basic biosecurity plans for their states … Indemnity is going to be connected to having a basic biosecurity plan.”