USDA to map out new system to ID animals

When U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack announced earlier this month that he was changing course on how animal diseases would be traced, there was a sigh of relief among farmers and ranchers around the country.

"It's a step in the right direction," Kansas Livestock Association president Mark Smith said.

The plan the federal government spent years and $142 million developing — National Animal Identification System — was unpopular with most producers. Among their criticisms was that it was too costly and invaded their privacy.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture has established a general outline for a new system, but it's far from complete.

To help refine the plan, the USDA has invited state animal health officials, industry leaders and producers from across the country to meet March 17-18 in Kansas City, Mo.

George Teagarden, Kansas Livestock Commissioner and head of the state's animal health department, plans to attend.

"It'll be interesting to see how that anti-NAIS faction accepts the new ideas," Teagarden said.

Nationally, only 36 percent of the producers participated in the old plan. In Kansas, there was only 22 percent participation.

"We can get that much with a phone book," Teagarden said.

The identification program never got past registering the premises where the animals were raised. Full implementation called for electronically identifying each animal and a system to track an animal from birth to slaughter. Animals killed by predators or illness were to be reported to the government within 24 hours.

The new framework will follow the path of the old one in that it will be voluntary.

Teagarden, who will retire in May after 16 years as commissioner, said that's a mistake. He said a system must be mandatory.

"You just don't get the participation otherwise," he said. "People say, 'Heck, I don't want to mess with that.' "

Rep. Collin Peterson, D-Minn., head of the U.S. House Agriculture Committee, already has called for the new system to be mandatory.

Unlike the old plan, which was directed by the federal government, the new one will be run by the states. That alone makes the producers more receptive.

"Farmers and ranchers didn't trust the confidentiality (of USDA)," KLA's Smith said. "It looked like such a massive program trying to trace every little farm, every little animal. It was just too burdensome."

Traditionally, farmers and ranchers play their production numbers close to the vest. But Teagarden said there was nothing about the old plan that invaded their privacy.

"We don't care how many cows a guy has until it's time to do testing if there is a disease," he said. "And then we only want to know so we get them all tested."

The new system also plans to use lower-cost technology. Some of that includes hot-iron branding, although currently only 18 states do. Kansas has it only in some counties.

"Brands are only good in the state where they're issued," Teagarden said. "I don't even know why they say brands might work."

Unlike the previous plan, the new one will apply only to animals moved between states.

"We're cautiously optimistic the USDA will put together a system that actually works," said Terry Holdren, Kansas Farm Bureau's national director of government relations.

Regardless, he said it will probably be two years before any plan is finalized.

Diseased livestock can have a devastating economic impact, especially if the disease is not stopped quickly and quarantine boundaries set up.

Kansas is one of the nation's top cattle-producing states, ranking third with 6 1/2 million head slaughtered in 2008. The state's total value for live animal and meat production, except poultry, in 2008 was $688.6 million — fourth-highest in the country.

The old identification system was a response to a 2003 discovery in Washington state of a cow from Canada that was infected with bovine spongiform encephalopathy, also known as mad cow disease.

Teagarden said it's important that any system track a disease very quickly. The old plan tried to determine the origin of a sick animal within 48 hours.

But because participation was so spotty, the response time didn't come close to meeting that goal. Teagarden said it recently took three years to learn the origin of a cow that came out of Minnesota with tuberculosis.

He said that while that's an extreme case, it's not unusual for it to take up to eight months to track down the origin of cattle shipped out of Texas that have been exposed to tick fever.

"That's a little too late if they're carrying the ticks," Teagarden said.

He said the most important issue, though, is being able to track foreign animal diseases, such as foot-and-mouth.

With the new system leaving it up to the states to establish their individual means of identification and tracking, Teagarden is concerned it will be too hodgepodge and states won't be able to share information quickly and accurately.

"In my opinion, they don't really have a plan," Teagarden said. "It's kind of everybody for themselves."