Washington producers respond to new animal identification plan

Sep 3, 2010

In a public listening session held Aug. 24 in Pasco, WA, officials from USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) unveiled the tentative framework of their newly crafted animal and disease traceability program. The last in a series of similar meetings held around the nation, the Pasco meeting also provided a forum for producers and veterinarians to voice their thoughts about the new plan before USDA finalizes it, which, according to officials, will likely occur next spring. The new plan is intended as a complete replacement of USDA’s earlier attempts at creating an animal tracing system, in particular their National Animal Identification System (NAIS). Hotly contested by producers around the country, the NAIS plan met with failure last June, with Congress’ decision to discontinue funding, citing a lack of progress on the part of APHIS. The decision to pull funding came as APHIS was conducting listening sessions around the country to determine why their program lacked support. They returned to the drawing board amidst complaints that NAIS was too complex, expensive, and was a significant invasion of producers’ privacy.

According to Dr. Lisa Ferguson of APHIS, the new plan, which was originally announced last February, attempts to address these concerns.

"We’ve heard the concerns, and hopefully what we’ve come up with will pave the way forward to support and protect the work of farmers and ranchers out there," said Ferguson.

According to Ferguson, the new framework will place tracing requirements only on animals that are moved across state lines. How this tracing occurs, and what happens within states will be the decision of each individual state. This allows, for example, states that utilize a brand program to continue doing so, only deferring to federal regulations when state lines are crossed. The framework also allows states to make agreements with one another regarding tracing requirements, and provides exemptions for special situations, such as ranchers that graze their cattle in two states, or auction yards that service an area covering multiple states. In addition, APHIS has removed pressure to utilize electronic tags, which were regarded by many as unnecessary and excessively costly. Instead, the new program would utilize small metal tags, similar to those currently used in the brucellosis program.

Dr. Leonard Eldridge, Washington state veterinarian, commended APHIS for listening to the concerns of producers in crafting the revised plan, and emphasized an increasing need for a functional disease tracing system, particularly in his home state.

"We’re one of few states that have an international border, as well as a thriving seaport," he pointed out, a geographical situation that he says carries an added risk to Washington’s cattle producers. According to Eldridge, quick and accurate traceback is the key to minimizing negative economic impacts. As evidence to that fact, he pointed to the downturn in the cattle market that followed the now famous BSE case that occurred in Mabton, WA, in 2003.

"Within just five days, we had traced that cow back to Canada," he said. "However, in that same five days, the cattle market in the U.S. dropped by 14 percent, which translates to $31 billion lost."

In contrast, Eldridge pointed to a recent case of tuberculosis that occurred in Washington. As a result of improved tracing capabilities within the state, Washington officials were able to track the animal’s Canadian origin in a much shorter time period, reducing potential damage. As another example, Eldridge described the recent outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease (FMD) in Japan. "(Foot-and-mouth disease) was transferred from China to Korea in worker’s clothing, then it made it to Japan," he said, "we realized it was just a plane ride away."

He also pointed out that in the 10 days that Japanese officials took to recognize the problem, 10 ranches became afflicted with the disease, a scenario that could easily be repeated in the U.S. "We’ve got to have a system in place to do early identification if we are to have quick containment," he said.

Among ranchers in attendance, opinions regarding USDA’s proposed plan were divided. Some regard the new system with equanimity, pointing out that Washington’s livestock regulations, which are substantial, already encompass much of what USDA is requesting. Others worry that compliance problems between states may cause unintentional problems with commerce. Under the USDA proposal, states are expected to comply with tracing regulations, and will be assigned a status of one, two, or three depending on how well they meet the federal regulations. Producers in states that carry a lower status will theoretically have additional health or other papers that they must obtain in order to ship out of state. This ranking system has many producers worried that they will be placed at an unfair disadvantage if their state is slow to comply.

"Wouldn’t that status be tied to the marketability of our animals?" asked one attendee. "There’s certainly potential for a real negative impact at the producer level."

It was also pointed out that producers from lower status states may find that other states will not accept their cattle, or that order buyers may avoid them altogether.

Other concerns centered on regulations governing incoming foreign cattle. Statewide, Washington receives nearly half a million cattle from Canada each year, and some area producers have long argued that border inspections on these cattle are inadequate. They feel that USDA’s focus should be on preventing diseases from entering the U.S. in the first place.

"The emphasis is all wrong on this," argued rancher Wade King. "Animal disease traceability should be the result of effective disease prevention. That means preventing the disease from entering our country. Our border inspections are lacking, and all of our recent disease events in Washington have entered from Canada. They need to strengthen import protocols, not simply maintain them."

The one concern that was voiced by nearly everyone in attendance was the price tag of implementing a new program, and who will bear the cost. In addition to direct costs, ranchers expressed concern that, with budgets already stretched thin, many states may find themselves unable to provide the manpower necessary to meet the new regulations. However, according to Eldridge, costs should be weighed against the potential impact of doing nothing, should an outbreak occur. He reminded all present that the impact Great Britain’s economy felt as a result of their FMD outbreak earlier this decade was second in severity only to the impacts created by World War II.

"We should be thinking about this like an insurance payment," he said. "Let’s do this, so that disease events don’t become catastrophes."

According to officials, APHIS hopes to announce their finalized plan sometime next April. Though no more listening sessions are scheduled, those wishing to read their proposed plan and comment on it may do so at www.aphis.usda.gov. — Jason Campbell, WLJ Correspondent