National Animal ID System lacks effectiveness

Oct 16, 2009
by DTN
National Animal ID System lacks effectiveness

For the commissioner of Minnesota’s Department of Agriculture, a functional livestock identification program would mimic the interstate highway system—a system initially created for national defense.

“The beauty of that whole system was that, in a sense, it was federally conceived, federally managed in the sense of putting things together—so that when the highway from Missouri and the highway from Kansas cross the river, they meet up and are not going two different places,” said Gene Hugoson, who still farms in Minnesota.

“But you still have state involvement in making them work. Who plows the snow? Who fills the potholes?” Hugoson spoke at the National Institute for Animal Agriculture’s Animal ID Info Expo conference in Kansas City, MO. He said a successful program makes it clear that animal identification is for the industry’s—not the government’s—defense.

His suggestion joins a chorus calling for reconsideration, reform or complete abandonment of the National Animal Identification System (NAIS), USDA’s voluntary program for identifying livestock. In April, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack announced he would accept written comments and host 14 listening sessions to garner input on the program before he made decisions on its future.

The listening sessions’ attendees, many of whom owned medium-sized cattle herds, heavily opposed the program. People said NAIS invades privacy, increases liability, endangers business information, costs more than what is practical for small producers, and disproportionately benefits large producers and packers. They added there were few direct benefits.

Yet, state veterinarians, animal health officials, the National Pork Board and many legislators, including House Agriculture Committee Chairman Collin Peterson, D-MN, believe a mandatory national ID system is a crucial tool for veterinarians in an animal disease outbreak.

NAIS funding cut

Although a mandatory program has the support of government officials, NAIS is a voluntary program and enrollment has flatlined. USDA received $142 million for NAIS since fiscal 2004 and only 35 percent of the country’s livestock premises are registered. Last year, the program’s premises enrollment increased by a meager 3 percent.

Pork and poultry are identified by lot using the premises registration number instead of assigning individual numbers. Cattle, goats and sheep are individually identified. According to USDA’s National Agricultural Statistics Service, there are between 94 million and 101 million cattle in the U.S., depending on the time of year, and there are 956,500 beef and dairycow operations in the U.S.

Despite support from legislators, the House of Representatives cut the program’s entire budget in June, and the Senate cut it in half. The legislative bodies agreed on $5.3 million, much less than USDA’s $14.6 million request.

Chairman of the House Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee Rosa DeLauro, D-CT, said she’d consider revising the amount if USDA creates a working system.

With the future of the program in flux and the listening session and comment period over, “the ball is in Secretary Vilsack’s court,” said Robert Fourdraine, chief operating officer of Wisconsin’s Livestock Identification Consortium. It’s unlikely Vilsack would scrap all notions of a livestock identification and traceability program, but it’s unclear what parameters of NAIS he will keep or change.

The cost of business as usual

Most supporters of mandatory ID aren’t wedded to NAIS’s parameters. But they generally agree the current system for tracing animal diseases—often beginning at slaughter and working backwards through the animal’s paper trail of producer records and sales receipts—is cumbersome, inefficient and antiquated. In the case of a major disease outbreak, like quick-spreading foot-andmouth disease, livestock movement would be crippled and losses would add up to billions of dollars.

Bill Luckey, a cattle rancher, hog producer and feedlot owner near Columbus, NE, believes one of the strongest points of an animal ID system is the searchable premises database it would create.

“In the event of an animal disease outbreak ... animal health professionals can efficiently locate premises that may have been exposed, rather than trying to physically locate them by driving,” he said.

It’s a tool many veterinarians and animal health officials feel is crucial in any disease investigation. The first step to figure out where a disease came from and how far it spread is to find all of the animals involved. It creates a daunting paper trail.

But if everyone isn’t doing it, it doesn’t work, Luckey said at an NAIS listening session in Omaha.

“We must recognize that some diseases, like footand-mouth disease, affect multiple species. Even if the U.S. pork industry registered 100 percent of the U.S. pork premises, it would remain vulnerable to unregistered premises down the road that may have other susceptible animals that could be exposed to an animal disease.”

Foot-and-mouth disease virus spreads quickly. Although it rarely kills the animal, disease control measures call for eradication.

Blistery lesions on the animal’s mouth and feet, the tell-tale signs, show up three to eight days after the animal is infected. The animal can spread the disease before it shows symptoms.

A 2006 Washington state study found that in the case of a foot-and-mouth disease outbreak, total economic loss in the beef industry (producers, consumers, exports) could total $266.3 billion if only 30 percent of a latent-affected herd is found and depopulated. (A latent-affected herd is one that has been exposed to the virus but has not begun to show symptoms.) The cost of an outbreak decreases to $50.3 billion if 60 percent of the latent-affected herd is identified and depopulated quickly.

The Washington state study did not consider the economic ramifications of cross-livestock contamination.

“The system we have now is a paper-based system,” said Fourdraine. “It uses a lot of different methods as far as ID. Brands come into play, metal ear tags, other tags, back tags. The bad thing is it takes time (to trace the disease spread), and how long are you willing to wait? How long can a livestock industry stay in business without moving product in and out of the farm in a disease outbreak scenario?” Milk goes bad if producers can’t ship it. Market-ready cattle and hogs can’t leave the farm, so they keep eating—and eat into producers’ margins.

Investigations aren’t quick. A typical bovine tuberculosis investigation takes nine months to complete and it’s a relatively slow-spreading disease.

Eradication success gives less incentive

The current hodge-podge mix of identification gets weaker every year, ironically because of the success of some eradication programs, said Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) staff veterinarian Dr. John Wiemers.

The U.S. is almost free of brucellosis. As disease occurrence dwindles and processors pay more for vaccineand antibiotic-free animals, producers have less incentive to vaccinate. At one point, Fourdraine said, 50 percent of U.S. cattle were vaccinated and tagged with an official metal “bangs” tag.

NAIS’s coordinator, Neil Hammerschmidt, said disease outbreaks in swine (pseudorabies), sheep (scrapies) and poultry (Newcastle disease) have led to high participation rates in NAIS compared to cattle. More than 80 percent of swine premises are registered.

“In the cattle sector, we have a greater void because of near eradication of some of the disease,” he said. APHIS estimates only 30 percent of cattle operations have registered their premises.

Hammerschmidt, Fourd raine, Luckey and Wiemers all agree that the U.S. needs better traceability in the livestock industry and that begins with producer participation.

“An ID system will not eliminate disease, but it allows us to address a disease outbreak much quicker,” Fourdraine said. “If it takes us nine months to figure something out versus two months, I think that there’s going to be a benefit to the producer involved in that particular area by having less restrictions as far as those movements. That’s at the heart of it. How can we resume business as usual?” — Katie Micik, DTN