USDA wants better tracking for livestock

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Livestock animals that cross state lines should have electronic identification, according to federal agriculture leaders.

States, industry, and the Department of Agriculture also should share data that can be used to identify and isolate animals sickened and exposed to dangerous pathogens, according to goals described this fall. Greg Ibach, USDA undersecretary for marketing and regulatory programs, said in an announcement that meeting those goals would help keep animals healthy and valuable.

"We have a responsibility to these producers and American agriculture as a whole to make animal disease traceability what it should be—a modern system that tracks animals from birth to slaughter using affordable technology that allows USDA to quickly trace sick and exposed animals to stop disease spread," he said.

The USDA officials who plan to implement that system have yet to describe in detail how animal identification and tracking systems will change and how soon that will happen. Agency spokeswoman Joelle Hayden said in early November that the USDA Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service was developing plans, but none were ready for sharing.

Dr. K. Fred Gingrich II, executive vice president of the American Association of Bovine Practitioners, said association leaders have talked for years with cattle industry partners about livestock tracking systems, although he has not talked with USDA officials about the latest proposal.

"I can tell you that we believe having a robust traceability system in place is necessary to protect the health of the nation's cattle herd," he said.

Aerial view of a cattle drive

This is especially true during an outbreak of a foreign disease. He said the U.S. and India are the only major beef exporters who lack robust cattle tracking systems.

About 700,000 farms and other operations have cattle raised for beef, Dr. Gingrich said. Farmers and ranchers send cattle from across the country to the central U.S. for finishing in feed yards, and the commingling and transportation involved present risks if one of them develops a contagious disease.

But Dr. Gingrich said any animal tracking system raises concerns about cost and privacy, especially if people can access program data through Freedom of Information Act requests.

With some exceptions, companies shipping livestock across state lines or U.S. borders already need individual or group identification for the animals, depending on the species. The identification can be ear tags for ruminants, group documents for pigs, group documents or leg bands for poultry, and descriptions or images for horses. Some states accept hot-iron brands for cattle.

Those requirements took effect in March 2013. USDA officials had pushed for more stringent tracking standards, with uniform electronic tracking, through a National Animal Identification System but abandoned much of the program in favor of state-based identification after livestock owners proved reluctant to participate.

Only one-third of livestock owners participated, despite $120 million spent by the USDA, a 2013 JAVMA News article states.

The goals described this year by Ibach include switching all animals to some type of electronic identification, although USDA will not mandate use of a specific tag technology, the announcement states. The department also would stop giving free metal ear tags, instead offering to share costs of electronic tags.

Although the announcement says the USDA wants to improve data sharing, the types of data are unidentified.

Related JAVMA content:

USDA scraps NAIS, plans to develop state-based tracing system (March 15, 2010)