New rules for tracing diseased livestock will lead to greater compliance and improve the country's ability to market its livestock products overseas, U.S Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack said Tuesday.
Vilsack, who announced the proposed system to improve the tracking of livestock during a conference call with reporters, said it would apply only to the movement of livestock across states' borders and would require animals to be accompanied by an interstate certificate of veterinary inspection or some other documentation, such as brand certificates or owner-shipper statements. Animals would be identified using an approved form of ID for each species, such as metal eartags for cattle.
The announcement came 18 months after the U.S. Department of Agriculture abandoned a program intended to trace the movement of farm animals across the country and said it would begin work on plans for a more flexible program to be administered by the states and tribal nations. A voluntary program implemented in 2004 to pinpoint an animal's location within 48 hours after a disease outbreak was poorly received with just 36 percent of farmers and ranchers participating in 2009.
That should change under the proposed rules, Vilsack said Tuesday.
"We would not propose this if we weren't confident it would do a better job than we've done in the past," said Vilsack, who cited a 150-day investigation into a bovine tuberculosis outbreak.
He said animals should be able to be traced within days of a disease outbreak. In some cases it may take weeks. In either situation, it will be a "significant improvement," Vilsack said.
He and John Clifford, the USDA's chief veterinarian, said the proposed rules were developed after meetings with producers, veterinarians and agriculture officials in each state.
"We're worked closely to give them maximum flexibility but also to make sure we give them good traceability," Vilsack said.
Clifford said certificates and other documentation would be obtained after the sale of an animal and before it is shipped to another state.
"The rule will not impede commerce," he said. "It is not the responsibility of the market to determine the destination. After an animal is sold and it's determined where they are (transported) they will get certificates."
Clifford said the proposed system "strives to meet the diverse needs of the animal agriculture industry and our state and tribal partners, while also helping us all reach our goal of increased animal disease traceability."
Vilsack also said the proposed system puts the U.S. in a "much better competitive position" among foreign countries wanting to ensure the products they buy from the U.S. are safe.
"This will give us greater compliance, greater confidence and allow us greater ability to market our products," he said.
The system would not prevent a state from developing its own system or interfere with existing systems already in place, he said.
The program would cost about $14.5 million a year and would require congressional support, said Vilsack, who was optimistic lawmakers would approve the proposed system.
"We spent a great deal of money in the past to get only meager support and participation in the system," he said. "By doing the outreach we've done, we will get greater compliance and greater acceptability and ... greater support.
"There is a good case to be made that we will have a substantial return on our investment, minimize testing and costs and producers and being more competitive in marketing our livestock to export markets," Vilsack said. "So I see this as a wise investment."
Gilles Stockton, a Montana cattle rancher, opposes the proposed system, saying it places too much burden on producers.
"If they are going to require a metal eartag in a calf and that number is going to have to be recorded, you are going to have to individually restrain each calf to read it, and that's logistically not possible in field conditions," he said. "It's not even possible at a sale barn. They don't have the time."
Stockton, 65, whose ranch is near Grass Range, Mont., said it seems the plan is in response to fears of foot-and-mouth disease being introduced in the U.S. from England and Europe. He said the system wouldn't prevent the introduction of the disease in the U.S., and that once it was found here, all livestock shipping would come to a halt, making tracing unnecessary.
"You're requiring a million livestock owners to go through this process year after year for a theoretical threat,' he said.
The National Pork Producers Council released a statement Tuesday applauding the USDA for taking steps to improve animal disease traceability.
"An effective traceability program would allow U.S. pork to compete more effectively in the international market place with those countries that have already implemented traceability programs" Doug Wolf, the organization's president, said in the statement.
There is a 90-day public comment period before the rules would be adopted.