USDA’s Animal Disease Traceability program moves ahead

Here’s the true story of how USDA actually found the Cow that Stole Christmas and why robust disease traceability is important.

Burt Rutherford, Senior Editor

August 12, 2020

4 Min Read
Cow with metal tag
Burt Rutherford

Many in the beef business were confused with USDA late last year. That’s because the agency pulled down the timeline it had just posted for what it was going to accept as official identification under the animal disease traceability (ADT) program. Turns out, according to Greg Ibach, USDA under secretary for marketing and regulatory programs, it was done at President Trump’s request.

Speaking at the Cattle Health & Well Being Committee meeting during the recent Cattle Industry Summer Meeting in Denver, Ibach said, “The President asked us to make sure that when we’re changing long-standing policy, that we do a notice and comment period. So we pulled those back to be able to introduce a notice and comment period to allow [people] in the cattle industry to be able to respond to that.”

 So, on July 16, USDA published a Federal Register notice and opened a comment period. The Federal Register noticed asks two things, said Alex Turner, assistant director, animal disease traceability with USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service. “The first thing is should USDA switch from what we currently have for accepted official ID to RFID only. And secondly, what timeline should we use to do that?”

READ: Will we get lifetime animal ID? Probably so

The comment period ends on October 5. Click here to go to the Federal Register notice and make comments. “We are, as ADT staff, reviewing those comments as they come in, because we want to make sure on October 6, we don’t have thousands and thousands of comments [we haven’t read],” Turner told the committee.

In the meantime, based on what he learned as he traveled around cattle country, USDA isn’t standing still regarding animal disease traceability, Ibach said.

“USDA is making calfhood bangs vaccination tags, EID tags, available for the replacement herd, as those heifers are identified for those of you who still bangs vaccinate. We’re also making some non-program tags be available for use in the replacement herd as well,” he said.

“And we have also continued to make the metal tags available for the older cattle that are still in the herd that you feel you need to have official ID. And finally, we’re not going to phase those tags out at the end of the transition period. We’re going to allow those to stay in the animals as official ID.”

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Internally, USDA is working to meld its various software programs so they all talk to each other. That will give USDA the ability to more quickly interact with an animal ID and know its history. “That’s going to help us convert to electronic health certificates and work with the states better,” Ibach said.

Why all the interest in modernizing animal disease traceability? It goes back to the Cow that Stole Christmas and the remarkable number of animal disease incidents that USDA and state veterinarians deal with.

Looking back to the years between 2013 and 2016, Turner said USDA and various states have had thousands upon thousands of disease investigations covering all three species. Often those are periodic outbreaks, like the vesicular stomatitis outbreak currently spreading throughout cattle country. That’s important because VS closely resembles foot-and-mouth disease and it’s critical to know the difference and know it quickly.

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“If we have a good traceability system in place, that really helps the regulatory officials respond more quickly and respond more completely and to get that response done so that not only do we find the sick animals and are able to diagnose them, but we find out who has the healthy animals that weren’t exposed, “Turner said. “We can rule out you folks who have healthy herds…and get you back to business as soon as possible with minimal interruption when you have a disease in your area.”

Then there was the Cow that Stole Christmas and the old-fashioned gumshoe investigative work that ultimately identified the animal with the first case of BSE in the country. “At the time, that trace took roughly four days before we could prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that the cow was actually a cow from Canada that was slaughtered in Washington state,” Turner said.

And how that identification fully happened is an incredible story. “It actually took a USDA veterinary medical officer going through hides that were collected from that week’s slaughter run and matching it up. Because part of the traceability of that animal was the original owner had a seedstock Holstein operation and he had pictures and registration papers of all his cattle and he had a Polaroid picture of that hide.”

So identifying an animal that cratered the cattle market and essentially shut down beef exports from the U.S. came down to looking at hide after hide after hide and comparing those with a Polaroid picture.

We can do better than that. Way better.

Indeed, for the future of the beef business, we have no alternative other than to do way better than that.


About the Author(s)

Burt Rutherford

Senior Editor, BEEF Magazine

Burt Rutherford is director of content and senior editor of BEEF. He has nearly 40 years’ experience communicating about the beef industry. A Colorado native and graduate of Colorado State University with a degree in agricultural journalism, he now works from his home base in Colorado. He worked as communications director for the North American Limousin Foundation and editor of the Western Livestock Journal before spending 21 years as communications director for the Texas Cattle Feeders Association. He works to keep BEEF readers informed of trends and production practices to bolster the bottom line.

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