Animal ID system ineffective |

Animal ID system ineffective

TSLN file photoThe U.S. has a beef cattle herd of about 96 million head and close to 1 million farmers, ranchers or feedlots, according to USDA data.

WASHINGTON (DTN) – Failure of the cattle industry to have an effective animal identification program could cost $30 billion to $100 billion if a devastating nationwide disease outbreak occurred, House Agriculture Committee Chairman Collin Peterson said Wednesday.

Peterson, speaking at a House Agriculture Subcommittee hearing on USDA’s National Animal Identification System, said staff from the Department of Homeland Security briefed Peterson on various scenarios of a disease outbreak. Peterson said opponents of a mandatory animal identification system are putting the financial stability of the livestock industry at risk if a major outbreak were to hit the industry.

“The potential risk here to the cattle industry is anywhere from $30 (billion) to $100 billion,” Peterson said. “That is $300 to $1,000 per animal.”

The House Agriculture Committee Subcommittee on Livestock, Dairy and Poultry examined USDA’s animal identification program with most members questioning the effectiveness of USDA’s efforts. John Clifford, deputy administrator for Veterinary Services at USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection System, acknowledged USDA’s program is ineffective and will remain that way under a voluntary program unless some new incentive helps spur producers to enroll.

Following repeated questioning and phrasing from congressmen, Clifford finally offered his own opinion that, “Unless we can provide adequate incentives for the idea of a voluntary system, it’s got to be mandatory.”

The U.S. has a beef cattle herd of about 96 million head and close to 1 million farmers, ranchers or feedlots, according to USDA data. Cattle producers in general have balked at registering their farms, or premises, let alone tag and track individual animals. USDA said about 35 percent of livestock premises are registered nationally, but that number is considered significantly lower when it comes to cattle. Tracking animals under disease outbreaks now can sometimes take up to 200 days. In some cases, such as when an Alabama cow had bovine spongiform encephalopathy, USDA was not able to track the origin of the animal.

“I think that based upon the current last several years, we have not been effective in signing premises up,” Clifford said. “The current system is not working. So we are either going to have to be mandatory or provide a new incentive to sign producers up.”

Peterson spoke passionately that the costs outweigh the criticisms of animal ID. Producers have raised concerns about privacy and costs, but Peterson said livestock producers cannot get “hung up” on some of those issues. By dragging their feet, he said, they are putting the industry at risk. If a major outbreak did hit the cattle industry, Peterson said he would balk at any federal bailout given the resistance to animal-tracking efforts.

“I will do my best to make sure the government doesn’t bail you out if this happens to you,” Peterson said.

Peterson said the House Agriculture and Homeland Security Committees will hold a joint hearing in the coming weeks to hear the Department of Homeland Security’s analysis on the effects of not having a national animal ID system.

Reflecting the resistance among members of the livestock industry, representatives for the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association and Ranchers and Cattlemen’s Action Legal Fund, or R-CALF, testified that their groups have a policy backing a voluntary program. Ranchers can either sign up for animal ID or choose not to do so.

Congress has appropriated $128 million to USDA to implement animal identification, and the department has spent about $118 million. The system was expected to be phased in as mandatory over time, but then-Secretary of Agriculture Mike Johanns announced in 2006 that the system should be voluntary and also technology neutral. Clifford said Johanns’ decision caused USDA to spend time testing more systems and “expend significant effort to get producers to participate.” That effort has not been effective, Clifford said.

Neither USDA nor Congress “want to continue shoving dollars into a system that will not get to the levels we need to have an effective system,” Clifford said.

As of now, Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack has yet to state whether the Obama administration backs a mandatory or voluntary program, but from Clifford’s perspective, the question is whether the U.S. has an effective system. If Vilsack opted for a mandatory program, Clifford said he believes the secretary has the authority under the Animal Protection Act to make animal ID mandatory without further legislation from Congress.

While the system is particularly ineffective in signing up beef-cattle producers, other livestock and poultry producers have been more supportive. North Carolina pork producer Don Butler, president of the National Pork Producers Council, testified Wednesday that his organization supports a mandatory program. The pork industry has operated with a functional animal ID system for more than 20 years. About 80 percent of all swine farm premises are registered with USDA.

“Given the contribution animal agriculture makes to the U.S. economy, the U.S. pork industry believes that it is imperative that the United States adopt a mandatory national animal identification system for all relevant livestock species,” Butler said.

Right now, only one state — Michigan — requires individual animal identification for cattle due to repeated outbreaks of bovine tuberculosis. Wisconsin and Indiana have mandatory premise registration programs.

Including rulemaking that would take about two years or less, a mandatory system with a bookend approach of premise identification and pulling numbers at slaughter would take three to four years for “full, effective implementation” and cost somewhere between $160 million to $190 million in funding, Clifford said.

USDA has been building a system to establish the goal of 48-hour traceback on animal diseases. The goal is to use computer data to track numbers on animals to determine where an animal is and where it has been to contact those commercial producers, packing plants, feedlots or sale barns and “halt commerce” in areas that could be affected, then send staff to those locations to track and determine the extent of an outbreak.

Rep. Mike Conway, R-Texas, noted that USDA pays cattle producers $750 a year to help keep their organic-certification status. Conway asked Clifford if a mandatory system were considered important to USDA, shouldn’t the department then pay producers $750 a year to register their premises. Clifford responded that animal ID is important to USDA from the standpoint of food safety.

According to USDA’s 2007 Agriculture Census, there were 963,669 farms with cattle nationally. If the federal government paid each of those producers $750 a year to register their farms, the cost would be approximately $723 million annually, just to pay cattle producers to register their farms.

Chris Clayton can be reached at

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