Data, Fund Woes Slow Animal ID

US - USDA is in the final stages of crafting a business plan to better define goals and strategies for its National Animal Identification System in the midst of Congress moving to pull its funding and a cattle industry that is not embracing the program with open arms.
calendar icon 31 August 2007
clock icon 5 minute read

Bruce Knight, USDA's undersecretary of marketing and regulatory affairs, told industry leaders at the National Institute for Animal Agriculture's ID Info Expo that USDA's National Animal Identification System is now working to integrate a myriad of federal and state databases into one major animal-disease program. The problem is that most of these databases cannot mesh together and USDA is struggling with compatibility.

USDA is facing funding challenges, though. The House Agriculture Appropriations Committee removed all funding for animal identification from USDA's budget. The Senate version cut NAIS funding from $32 million to $19 million. Those two funding bills go to conference next month. Lawmakers want a business plan for how USDA is going to implement NAIS in the future. Knight said that business plan will be released within the next month and ideally it will inspire more confidence and get the animal ID funding restored.

"I have a great deal of confidence in the business plan," Knight said. "It's a very common-sense approach."

"States that don't perform (well) will have a hard time getting cooperative agreement money in the future,"

Bruce Knight, USDA's undersecretary of marketing and regulatory affairs.

After pulling back on a push for mandatory animal ID, USDA has worked extensively with states and different groups to register farms that have livestock. Right now, about 414,000 premises are registered out of an estimated 1.4 million livestock operations nationally. That doesn't include an unknown number of smaller, backyard operations that may have a few cattle, hogs, chickens or goats.

While USDA hit its goal earlier this year of 25 percent premise registration, animal identification, particularly of cattle, remains slow to catch on. Industry guesses are that somewhere between 6 percent and 9 percent of the nation's 97-million-head-cattle herd may be source- or age-verified. That doesn't necessarily mean those animals would have individual identification, though.

Knight reminded participants of the money and time USDA has spent over the past several years eradicating some livestock diseases. Since 2002, bovine tuberculosis has cost about $130 million, which involved testing 790,000 cattle and destroying 25,000 animals. Bovine spongiform encephalopathy cost $2 billion in export markets and an enhanced testing effort cost $189 million. An outbreak of Exotic Newcastle Disease in California poultry in 2002 cost $160 million and 4 million birds were destroyed.

The goal for USDA remains 48-hour traceback of livestock in a disease outbreak. Some animal industries such as poultry and hogs are already geared up to provide quick response, though the cattle industry, in particular, has not embraced animal ID.

"Comprehensive and state-of-the-art solutions are needed to get us there," Knight said.

USDA has partnered with groups such as Future Farmers of America, the National Pork Board and the National Milk Producers Federation, which is working with members to boost premise identification and promote NAIS to members. Knight said there is a greater effort to reach out to industry groups that have the trust of their members.

"We really have picked up a lot of momentum," Knight said. "Mainstream production ag has said this is a good thing and we are going to help out."

USDA has contracted with several universities to do a cost-benefit analysis on animal identification throughout the livestock and food chain. Knight noted he has struggled to find cost-benefit analysis for countries that already have major national animal ID programs such as Canada or Australia. Colorado State University also has contracted to examine the logistics of livestock tracking in meatpacking and rendering plants to ensure tags are terminated once an animal is deceased.

While USDA has shifted to establishing cooperative agreements with various trade and industry organizations, the states are still key players. Such agreements are performance-based, so states and groups that lag in getting premises registered or individual animals tagged are likely to lose funding as a result.

"States that don't perform (well) will have a hard time getting cooperative agreement money in the future," Knight said.

To advance its own programs, USDA also has bought 1.5 million radio frequency identification tags that will be used for monitoring scrapie or brucellosis. This will help reduce costs for producers working in those programs and give USDA a better handle on what it may take to work with a database and a high volume of tagged livestock.

What's clear with USDA's focus is that Knight and staff are talking less about the small backyard producer and emphasizing commercial operations. That increases the likelihood of reaching a "critical mass" in the numbers of farmers registered and eventual animals in the program. The focus is more on animals that will be in commerce, part of the food chain, or in high-dollar industries such as horse racing.

"It's not a problem with numbers," Knight said. "It's a matter of setting clear priorities."

Knight also said USDA will examine how the United Kingdom reacted and responded to this month's foot-and-mouth-disease outbreak in England and how that country's identification system functioned. Knight also traveled to Canada about a month ago to look at that country's system, he said. Knight said he wants to learn from mistakes in other countries.

"The key thing here is we want to learn from those lessons and not make the same mistakes some of those other countries have done and work to make a system that works well for the U.S. marketing system," Knight said.

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