When bovine spongiform encephalopathy was diagnosed in Washington state in December 2003, the nation was fortunate. Fortunate, that is, because the BSE-causing prion, though transmissible, isn't as infectious as other animal disease pathogens, such as those that cause foot-and-mouth disease, rinderpest, or Rift Valley fever.
Beginning with official confirmation of BSE infection in the Holstein dairy cow, it took U.S. agriculture officials more than three weeks to conclude the epidemiologic investigation to determine the cow's origin and to locate, verify, and depopulate the consignment of Canadian cattle that might also have transferred the infectious agent.
To date, the BSE infection appears to be limited to the single Holstein cow. But had the cow been carrying FMD, it would have been another story.
There's no telling how many other cows would have contracted FMD if it had taken the government weeks to conduct its investigation. It's possible the country might have experienced an outbreak paralleling, if not surpassing entirely, the 2001 FMD outbreak in the United Kingdom, in which 10 million sick and healthy animals were slaughtered at a cost of $13 billion.
One of the lessons from the U.S. case of BSE is that, if disease threats to animal agriculture are going to be effectively managed, the nation must be able to rapidly identify and trace the movements of each agricultural animal in the country.
For several years, numerous industry and government stakeholders in animal agriculture have been working on such a plan. Their proposal, U.S. Animal Identification Plan, was presented in October 2003 at the annual meeting of the U.S. Animal Health Association (see JAVMA, Feb. 1, 2004).
The USAIP defines the standards and framework for implementing a phased-in national animal identification system. Its goal is to establish a traceback system that can identify every animal and premise potentially exposed to an animal with a foreign animal disease within 48 hours after detection.
Four months after the BSE discovery, Agriculture Secretary Ann M. Veneman introduced the National Animal Identification System. The system would be phased in over several years and identify any agricultural premise exposed to an animal disease, so the pathogen can be quickly contained and eradicated.
Veneman announced that $18.8 million had been provided for the initial phase of the system, which was scheduled to begin in the summer of 2004. An additional $33 million had been earmarked for 2005 for continued implementation (see JAVMA, June 15, 2004).
Crafting and implementing an effective, uniform identification system encompassing every agricultural animal is no small feat. For that reason, the USAIP is said to be a work in progress. So, some 500 stakeholders gathered in Chicago for the ID-INFO EXPO 2004, May 18-20, to continue working on the details. The National Institute for Animal Agriculture hosted the conference and trade show that focused on the issues of animal identification and information systems.
Thirty-five vendors for animal ID manufacturers and information systems service providers from America, Canada, Australia, and the United Kingdom were on hand demonstrating their technologies. Species and issues working groups presented reports developed with input from their respective industries. Identification plans used in Canada, Mexico, and Australia were previewed, as well.
In his opening remarks, Dr. Richard L. Sibbel, the newly elected NIAA board chairman, said, "The newest dimension of animal agriculture is animal identification. This ID dream and vision is taking shape ... The price for not succeeding is steep."
The USDA is using the current $18.8 million appropriation to evaluate identification pilot projects to determine whether one is suitable to serve as an interim premises data repository, said Agriculture Undersecretary Bill Hawks.
The department is moving forward with implementing the system on a voluntary basis while it is being developed and refined. "Our long-term goal is to incorporate all moving livestock into the national system," Hawks said. "But eventually, we may move toward a requirement for premises and animal identification for all species included in the system."
The National Animal Identification System will be technology-neutral, Hawks added. The USDA wants to allow producers as much flexibility as possible to use current identification processes or systems, or adopt new ones. "We do not want to burden them with multiple identification numbers, systems, or requirements," he said.
Although the framework and standards are designed for many species, some issues still remain unresolved. Confidentiality of data and the need for additional funding were among the topics discussed. Another key component will be ensuring that animal owners understand how the system will work and what they can be doing on their operations.
Indiana State Veterinarian Bret D. Marsh highlighted aspects he believes the National Animal Identification System must include. It must allow animals to move freely throughout the country without impeding commerce or placing producers at a competitive disadvantage, Dr. Marsh said.
A common identification technology should be used in the animals. The system cannot be frequently rebuilt, he explained, so a technology must be chosen that will provide the longest value and the greatest usefulness.
Dr. Marsh said that, although the cost of implementing a national identification system will likely be shared by state, federal, and industry partners, the overall cost burden must not be so great that the entire plan collapses.
"All of these efforts," Dr. Marsh said, "those that have been done and those that remain to be done, are aimed at one thing: to preserve and protect the agricultural assets of the country."