USDA kills animal ID plan

The Billings Gazette

by Tom Lutey

The U.S. Agriculture Secretary is dropping plans to track animals from birth to butcher shop, a move welcomed by ranchers leery of big government.

After months of backlash from Western ranchers and others, Secretary Tom Vilsack said Friday that the U.S. Department of Agriculture will kill its yearslong push for a national animal identification system. By noon, the USDA had pulled most references to the failed program from its Web site.

“It certainly means we have a USDA that is genuinely listening to the concerns of independent producers and is striking off in a new direction to achieve disease trace-back and prevention of communicable diseases,” said Bill Bullard, CEO of the Ranchers-Cattlemen Action Legal Fund, United Stockgrowers of America.

Vilsack said he will turn to state and tribal veterinarians for a uniform way to track animals shipped across the country. Tracking animals moving intrastate will be left up to each state government. The USDA spent several years and more than $142 million developing the canceled program, which would have required everyone from large cattle ranchers to backyard chicken owners to tag livestock and report the whereabouts of those animals to the government.

The identification program was moving forward despite protests until early 2009, when President Barack Obama appointed Vilsack agriculture secretary. The new secretary met with farm and ranch leaders opposed to the move and then launched a countrywide listening tour to hear from individual farmers and ranchers who packed meetings.

Complaints about the USDA identification program were myriad. Some said regulations delivered so much cattle information to meatpackers that ranchers would have difficulty negotiating fair cattle prices. Others objected to the plan’s mandatory government inspection requirements.

Proponents, such as the American Veterinary Medical Association, contended that extensive identification would protect consumers and minimize livestock loss. Bullard and others said the group recognized the technology existed for a national identification program and ran with it.

In the West, ranchers balked at documenting every movement of range animals from pasture to pasture. Newborns were to be tagged and reported to the government within a day. Animals killed by predators or illness were to be reported within 24 hours. And ranchers didn’t have a choice but to participate.

“The good thing now is, we as ranchers have a choice,” said Tom Hougen, Montana Stockgrowers Association president. “We don’t have the government coming in telling us how to do something.”

Montana Stockgrowers have supported a voluntary animal identification system and they’re also proponents of hot-iron brands, Hougen said. There will have to be some method of disease traceability for satisfying foreign buyers of American meat, Hougen said.

Whatever system emerges will have to be strong enough to satisfy markets such as Japan and South Korea, whose preferences will shape U.S. animal identification standards.

Ranchers like Gilles Stockton of the Western Organization of Resource Councils think that hot-iron brands could suffice if brand records were paired with animal vaccination records. Not every state has hot-iron brand books. Currently 18 states and Canadian provinces do.

“Basically we’ve already got it all in place. It takes a brand inspection to move cattle out of state, and if it’s a breeding animal, it has to have a brucellosis tag, which has a number that traces back to the veterinarian who put it in there,” Stockton said. “For shipping animals out of state, I don’t think there will be much required of Montana different than we already have. And if it’s for export purposes, we already have a voluntary system.”

The brand records might have to be brought up to speed and updated with vaccination information, but the system has worked well in Montana since 1884, said Stockton, who was among producers who met with Vilsack en masse last spring.

U.S. Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., said hot-iron brands, paired with the right information, could be a good place to start.

“If you know hot-iron brands, they go all the way through the hide, you can read it whether the animal is dead or alive,” said Tester, who wasn’t sure national animal identification was dead after reading Obama’s proposed budget issued Monday.

The president’s proposed budget increased funding for the National Animal Identification System. Last August, Tester and Sen. Mike Enzi, R-Wyo, co-sponsored an amendment to gut more than half the funding for NAIS.

NAIS was billed as a food safety measure, but Tester said the system failed that test by imposing regulations on farms and ranches instead of packing plants.

“This is good news. This didn’t do what it was intended to do anyway, years ago when it was set up,” Tester said. State and tribal governments will now work with farmers and ranchers on an agreed policy for tracking livestock interstate. Veterinarians from those governments will meet with Vilsack next month. Still, Tester said, the process will to be closely watched.