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Brands and animal ID
Brands and plastic ear tags are today’s standard animal ID methods. But are they enough in the event of a catastrophic animal disease epidemic? Even combined with accurate records, it can take days, weeks or even months for state and federal animal health officials to trace all animals backward and forward.

When it comes to traceability, time is money — and animal welfare

Tracing cattle for disease purposes can take weeks or even longer.

Editor's Note: This is part two of an exclusive series digging into animal traceability in the U.S. Read part one here.

Despite increased use of electronic identification and record keeping, tracing cattle infected by disease, or suspected to be infected, can take lots of time and boot leather.

“We have to trace back far enough, which may include multiple movements and touch multiple herds, which then also need to be traced,” explains Jack Shere, DVM, U.S. chief veterinary officer. “When electronic ID and electronic record keeping are available, tracing back one level can take place in minutes to hours. Paper trails can take days, weeks or longer.” Depending on the disease in question, time spent locating suspect animals can cause devastating losses.

Closest to home and memory for U.S. cattle producers is the economic impact wrought by an imported cow discovered to be infected with BSE in December 2003. The index cow arrived along with a handful of others from Canada.

Most international export markets were shuttered to U.S. beef until it could prove that affected cattle were dead or under surveillance. A report from the U.S. International Trade Commission pegged lost export sales at $2.5 billion to $3.1 billion annually for 2004-07. But, it took more than a decade for U.S. beef exports to recover.

Then, there’s the 2-ton monkey in the closet — foot-and-mouth disease (FMD), like the 2001 outbreak in the United Kingdom.

There were 2,030 confirmed cases between confirmation of the first U.K. case in February 2001 and the last one in September, according to a USDA review. About 4 million head were depopulated to prevent spread of the disease.

But unofficial figures from what was then the U.K. Meat and Livestock Commission estimated more than 10 million head of livestock were slaughtered due to the outbreak for reasons including animal welfare, dwindling feed supplies and closed markets.

Economic consequences

Economic consequences for the U.S. would likely be exponentially higher. There’s more livestock, for one thing. Lots more stock are transported across many more miles, too. The bipartisan Report of the Blue Ribbon Study Panel on Biodefense cited estimates of 400,000 head of cattle and 1 million pigs transported daily over long distances.

“An outbreak of FMD will have a devastating effect on all of agriculture — not just livestock producers — and will have long-lasting ramifications for the viability of U.S. agriculture, the maintenance of food security in this great nation, and overall national security,” according to a letter sent by more than 100 agricultural groups to Congress last summer in support of a robust FMD vaccine bank as part of the 2018 Farm Bill.

“An outbreak of FMD would immediately close all export markets. The cumulative impact of an outbreak on the beef and pork sectors over a 10-year period would be more than $128 billion ... The annual jobs impact of such a reduction in industry revenue is more than 58,000 in direct employment and nearly 154,000 in total employment.”

Again, that’s after considering the animal welfare implications.

“More animals were killed in England for animal welfare issues than ever got the disease,” Shere emphasized during a presentation at April’s annual meeting of the National Institute for Animal Agriculture (NIAA). “We have a lot of just-in-time production in the United States, meaning that when an egg hatches, there’s a baby chick that just moved out of the hatchery somewhere else, and there’s another egg coming in behind, and you have pullets being set and broilers being set; all of that production follows, and there’s no space. Once you back that up and stop that movement, you have a big animal welfare problem.”

Shere points out there has been no FMD in the U.S. since 1929. If FMD were to surface in the U.S., he says livestock movement would likely be stopped for a period of time to prevent spread.

Connecting the dots

“A significant priority of the USDA is safeguarding the domestic food supply and the tools needed to enhance animal disease prevention, such as animal disease traceability, biosecurity, and diagnostic capability,” explains Gregory Ibach, USDA undersecretary of agriculture for marketing and regulatory programs, in a white paper from the NIAA meeting.

“The approach of the USDA to animal disease is a ‘three-legged stool’ approach. The first leg — and the main leg that addresses animal disease traceability — is prevention, preparedness and outbreak response. Components include animal disease surveillance; prevention of animal disease through enhanced detection, particularly at high-risk entry points; outreach to producers and the public regarding biosecurity; and training to develop rapid outbreak response capability.”

Animal disease often comes to light via local veterinarians who see something suspicious, or through various federal and state animal health programs. For instance, there is the testing associated with states’ animal movement programs, as well as the routine antemortem inspection and blood testing conducted at slaughter plants by USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service.

 If an infection or suspected disease is found, then the tracing begins.

“The response will vary based upon the disease of concern, but in general, we will need to look for any other potentially affected animals,” Shere explains. “This means we need to trace the affected animals’ movements backward for at least the incubation period of the disease of concern.

“For some diseases, like tuberculosis or bovine spongiform encephalopathy, this often means to the birth location. For other, more acutely infectious diseases, it might be a period of weeks. We also need to trace forward the movements of any animals that previously had contact with the affected animal to see what other animals may have been exposed,” he says.

More specifically, when state or federal animal health officials are notified about a potential disease issue, Shere explains, “We send out a specially trained foreign animal disease diagnostician to go to the farm-ranch to investigate. Based on their investigation, they will take appropriate actions. This may include taking samples and sending them to the laboratory and/or putting in place a movement quarantine.

“Depending on the suspected diagnosis, state and federal animal health officials will prepare to take additional actions to contain the disease. If or when we receive positive laboratory results, we will move forward with a response, following our disease response plans,” he says.

Good records help

Records — accurate records — are key to tracing livestock: everything from interstate certificates of veterinary inspection (health papers) to consignment records to those for animal movement.

“Without accurate records, we’re at the mercy of the disease. They’re our pathway to finding where disease is,” Shere told NIAA participants. “The faster we can find the infection and stamp it out, the less spread we have, the less virus load. The faster you can contain it, the faster you can clean up afterwards.”

States are responsible for intrastate movement, while federal officials are responsible for interstate movement. Obviously, it takes teamwork between the two.

“When doing a trace, we have to look at all animals in the affected herd and connect them to records for previous movements and sales. We want to quickly locate affected and potentially affected animals before they move to a new location and bring the disease to a new herd,” Shere explains.

“If there is individual identification and good record keeping, it will take significantly less time and affect significantly fewer producers than if there is no individual identification or disorganized record keeping,” he says. “If we are relying on people’s memories for when and where they bought groups of animals, it can take a very long time, and may or may not be accurate. But we still have to complete the trace and test all potentially affected animals to prevent disease spread.”

Cattle traceability

Relative to population numbers, traceability of cattle remains the most problematic.

“The cattle sector, as a whole, has the lowest level of traceability,” Shere says. “The dairy sector, because of its management practices, typically has better traceability than the beef sector. Beef cattle move individually or in small groups more often than other sectors. There is less individual animal identification.”

All of that is why folks in the cattle industry have spent the better part of two decades working with state and federal animal health officials and tribal nations to implement a national, standardized livestock identification and traceability system that would enable traceback within 48 hours, for the purpose of animal disease management and surveillance.

At present, branding and ear notches are the only permanent forms of cattle identification. But they only go so far. Nationally, only about 25% of all cattle harvested are branded. Should some sort of national lifetime animal ID system come into play, ID and traceability programs that can enable 48-hour traceback will likely require some form of lifetime identity.

As mentioned last month in the first part of this exclusive BEEF series, successful management and eradication of diseases like bovine tuberculosis and brucellosis means fewer cattle are officially identified over time.

Incidentally, the number of foreign animal disease investigations (all species) conducted by the USDA Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service increased rapidly in the last few years, from 326 in 2011 to 1,770 last year. A large portion of the increase had to do with high pathogenic avian influenza, porcine epidemic diarrhea, and more recently the emerging Senecavirus A in swine. The latter mimics and resides in the same family as FMD.

“Any way we can make the tracing process happen more quickly and efficiently will benefit our animal industries,” Shere says. “But, we know the fastest method of completing a trace is when we have the right records easily accessible. This also lessens the need for our staff to inconvenience multiple producers by going from farm to farm trying to locate potentially affected animals, which is a biosecurity benefit.”

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