Washington ranchers support tighter brand laws

Jan 29, 2010

Washington ranchers support tighter brand laws

Representatives of Washington state’s cattle industry gathered together at the capitol in Olympia, WA, on Jan. 19 to testify before the Committee on Agricultural and Rural Economic Policy. They testified on behalf of a bill that, if enacted, would grant greater authority to the brand inspection system in that state. The primary goal of the bill, according to officials, is to give greater oversight to health inspections for cattle entering the state and to ensure that they actually arrive at their stated destination.

Under the new rules proposed by the bill, livestock entering Washington would need to be accompanied by health certificates prepared at the animal’s place of origin in order to ensure disease-free status. Currently, state and federal laws do not require health certificates on cattle that are entering the state destined for immediate slaughter. The new rule retains that exemption, but states that cattle entering Washington specifically for slaughter must be delivered to an approved facility within 12 hours of crossing the border. In addition, the new rule would grant the Washington State Department of Agriculture (WSDA) authority to conduct investigations and examine animals that may have been exposed to disease, a capability the department currently lacks.

It may seem strange to see producers uniting in favor of increased regulations, but in a state that annually imports nearly double the number of cattle it raises, many ranchers feel that extra safeguards are warranted in order to maintain the health of their herds. According to WSDA, in 2008, 404,000 head of cattle were brought into Washington for slaughter, headed to feedlots, or for other purposes. This is in contrast to the roughly 250,000 head that reside in the state year-round. In the face of these numbers, Wade King, rancher and president of the Cattle Producers of Washington (CPoW), underlines the need to give the state the necessary tools for adequate protection.

"(The bill) is just trying to clarify the department’s role in animal health," says King. "Ultimately, the agency is supposed to protect the health of our animals and right now, they don’t have the authority that they need to do that."

Jack Field, executive vice president of the Washington Cattlemen’s Association (WCA), echoes that sentiment, and points out that a bill addressing this situation has been a long time coming. "This is something that was originally included in some language that (WSDA) requested back in 2007," says Field. "Since that time, Washington has had several cases where industry wanted the state to look deeper, but they didn’t have the authority to investigate the incident."

Much of the testimony centered on WSDA gaining the ability to ensure that cattle are delivered to their intended destination, a reaction, some say, to an incident that occurred with an incoming Canadian shipment last May. In that case, 405 head of cattle supposedly destined for a Moses Lake, WA, feedlot belonging to the Agribeef Corporation instead ended up on a ranch near Northport, WA. Because they had been destined for a registered feedlot, no health papers were required, which became a problem once the animals had commingled with other cattle within the state. To their credit, Agribeef was quick to admit the mistake, and cooperated fully with WSDA. The subsequent investigation proved the cattle disease free. Although everyone agrees the outcome in this case was positive, King and the other members of CPoW remain concerned that similar misplaced shipments may not end so well.

Although nothing in the proposed rules specifically mentions Canada as a source of incoming cattle, it is difficult to ignore the fact that nearly 50 percent of the cattle shipped into the U.S. from Canada are destined for Washington. CPoW has long argued that USDA’s border controls are insufficient to ensure that incoming cattle are disease free and that loads end up where they are supposed to. The group is hopeful the new bill will allow Washington to pick up the slack.

"We need the department to be able to reinforce what the USDA should be doing," King said in his testimony.

The state’s cattle feeders, many of whom rely on Canadian cattle to fill their yards, also expressed approval of the bill. Ed Field, executive director of the Washington Cattle Feeders Association, pointed out that due to the permitting requirements to hold Canadian cattle, many feedlots in the state are already subject to inspection under state law.

In addition to stricter import requirements, the bill also provides WSDA with the ability to charge replacement fees for brand inspection documents, charge mileage and time to violators to offset the cost of investigation, and repeals a self-inspection program. The self-inspection program, which was implemented as a cost saving measure in the 1990s, allowed for transactions of less than 25 head between two parties to simply fill out a form by themselves, rather than involve the brand office.

According to State Veterinarian Leonard Eldridge, it is a program that has outlived its usefulness. Eldridge, who is credited by the cattlemen as being the driving force behind the introduction of this bill, points out that the self inspection program, which does not involve any reporting of the transaction to the state, makes it difficult for WSDA to untangle health and ownership issues. "Because there is no reporting, cattle traceability in Washington using the brand record has gaps," testified Eldridge. "The present system of self inspection does not provide the department with the change of ownership and movement information necessary to prevent diseases."

Producers in Washington are hopeful that the obvious industry-wide support for the bill will help ensure its eventual passage in the legislature. Jack Field of WCA also points out that WSDA has always been supportive of the state’s beef industry.

"They’ve always done whatever it takes to make sure that if the industry needs something, and if they can justify what they are doing, they have been supportive of helping us to better our industry." — Jason Campbell, WLJ Correspondent