The Obama administration last week announced it is killing a national livestock tracking program that never got off the ground. Widespread complaints by farmers and ranchers kept delaying the program, so the federal government now says state programs will have to keep track of cattle, hogs and poultry that cross state lines.
All cattle, hogs and poultry that cross state lines sometime during their life, which includes much of Iowa's hog production and more than a million beef cattle yearly in Iowa, would be required to participate in some type of state tracking program. Livestock that spend their entire lives in a single state, even if their meat is distributed elsewhere, would be exempt, according to USDA.
New strategy for animal disease traceability needed
U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack said after holding a series of public hearings on the issue this past year, "It was apparent that a new strategy for animal disease traceability is needed."
Iowa Secretary of Agriculture Bill Northey agrees, adding that producers would likely be more willing to cooperate with state authorities than the USDA. "Something had to change," says Northey.
The Bush administration proposed the federally run ID system after the discovery of the nation's first case of mad-cow disease in 2003. Consumer groups said the creation of a mandatory ID system was critical to being able to trace the origin of contaminated food. Meatpackers, who think they get blamed for contamination that originates on farms or feedlots, also have been pushing for the establishment of a national ID system.
Livestock producers were skeptical of USDA effort
But many producers complained about the potential cost of the ID tags and worried that they could be sued when tainted meat or livestock products were traced back to their animals. One report said a national animal identification system would cost producers about $228 million annually.
USDA changed its plans for the system several times in response to critics, to try to come up with a workable, satisfactory ID program. Most livestock farmers failed to take even the first step toward participation—registering their farms with USDA.
Northey says the government will have to carry through on its assurances of federal funding for the new program to be carried out by the states. It's not yet clear how much a state program would cost.
Iowa would be affected by a state-run ID system
Many of Iowa's livestock, especially hogs, are born outside the state and fed out on Iowa farms or shipped to surrounding states for slaughter. Iowa imported 24 million young pigs in 2009, plus 232,407 breeding swine and 241,587 hogs for slaughter in 2009, according to the Iowa Department of Agriculture. More than 1.2 million beef cattle and 35,171 dairy cattle also were brought into the state.
About 27,000 livestock farms, sale barns and other livestock handling facilities have registered with the ID program from Iowa, 56.5% of the total.
Some observers say Vilsack had no choice but to kill the federal plan for a national program. There was so much animosity toward the plan and so much confusing history that it was hard to untangle. However, it isn't clear how the state-run systems would be compatible with each other. Some states may rely on ear tags, for example, while others would rely on use of electronic ID. It may be years before an ID system run by the states is operating.
Meatpackers aren't happy with Vilsack's decision to drop the proposed national program. "We are extremely disappointed by the failure to implement a national program," says Patrick Boyle, president of the American Meat Institute. But several livestock producer groups are praising the USDA decision.
Livestock group praises USDA for abandoning NAIS
Max Thornsberry, a Missouri veterinarian and cattleman who is president of R-CALF USA, thanked Vilsack for his "receptiveness to the interests of U.S. cattle farmers and ranchers. We are glad to know USDA has decided to revise its prior policy on animal disease traceability and begin developing a new approach. USDA's prior policy was to create the National Animal Identification System or NAIS, which R-CALF members and many other producers opposed."
Thornsberry adds, "The Secretary has signaled he is going back to the drawing board to develop a new system that does not infringe upon the rights and privileges of U.S. cattle producers as did NAIS. This is exactly what we've been urging USDA to do for the past five years."
Thornsberry says NAIS was conceived and supported by international trade organizations, ear tag manufacturers and multinational meatpackers, and was all about controlling cattle farmers and ranchers and cattle markets, not about controlling and preventing animal diseases.