Vilsack plans Animal ID sessions | TSLN.com

Vilsack plans Animal ID sessions

Jerry Hagstrom

TSLN photo by Doug HoganUSDA officials have publicly said they do not believe its animal identification and tracking program is effective the way it is currently implemented.

WASHINGTON (DTN) – In an apparent attempt to soften congressional anger over the slow development of the Agriculture Department’s National Animal Identification System, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack met Wednesday with leaders of 28 groups with an interest in the program and announced that he will hold listening sessions around the country over the next six months.

Vilsack told the farm, ranch and agribusiness leaders he is concerned about the willingness of lawmakers to continue appropriating money for the program, several participants said.

House Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee Chairwoman Rosa DeLauro, D-CT, told Vilsack recently that she was tired of providing money for a program that is not working out as expected. DeLauro said her subcommittee had been told five years ago that animal ID would become mandatory, but that so far it is voluntary and has only a low percentage of registered farms – known as premises. Vilsack said Tuesday the program has cost $118 million.

House Agriculture Committee Chairman Collin Peterson, D-MN, also favors a mandatory system, but says he will not move legislation unless the Obama administration and Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman Tom Harkin, D-IA, support it.

Agribusiness, trade, veterinary, animal welfare and food safety groups have urged USDA to adopt a mandatory animal identification system to trace animal disease outbreaks quickly, but ranchers and cattle feeders have objected, citing cost and liability issues. Small ranchers have also complained the system would favor big producers.

At a news conference following the meeting Wednesday, Vilsack said he wants to try to get every group’s objections on the record and try to address those concerns so that ranchers and others do not try to avoid participation in a mandatory system if it is put in place.

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Vilsack also said there are basic questions about the cost of NAIS, liability and whether the system would be used for both animal health and to track the source of human illnesses. Vilsack also said the technology to be used in a mandatory system has not been decided or whether there would be one type of technology or many. Vilsack also does not want to have a negative impact on the market for meats.

Vilsack said he thought much of the concern expressed at the meeting “stemmed from a credibility issue that USDA has in some parts of the country.” He said he hopes that listening sessions around the country can “identify common threads that could be the basis of a better accepted system.”

Vilsack also said there needs to be better “articulation by USDA of what we are doing,” but said the listening sessions would not be meetings to promote a mandatory system.

Some meeting participants said the views and conflicts have already been aired so many times that the USDA meetings would amount to stalling for time while Congress appropriates money for fiscal year 2010.

Vilsack said he does not underestimate the difficulty in finding compromises on an issue about which people feel passionate, but said he hopes he can find the common ground. “I am a new person to this job, and I come into it with a fresh pair of eyes.”

Jess Peterson of U.S. Cattlemen’s Association, a ranchers’ group, said that USDA and state veterinarians need to work on practical solutions to the ranchers’ objections.

Vilsack did not say how many meetings will be held or where they will be.

jerry hagstrom can be reached at jerry.hagstrom@dtn.com