Guest Opinions: Livestock Producers Need a Workable Animal ID Solution
By Mark Eisele, National Cattlemen’s Beef Association
In a recent opinion piece and direct e-mails to livestock producers in Wyoming, Rep. Harriet Hageman (R-WY) laid out her objections to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) rule on electronic identification (EID) for cattle and bison.
While I appreciate the fact her personal experiences have shaped her world view on how cattlemen and women should view the government, the fact is U.S. cattle producers are already lagging behind much of the world on the topic of animal identification, and we are now playing catch up.
Although there are flaws with USDA’s EID regulations, I believe we must take steps forward to begin building a robust national animal traceability system, which will help protect our national food system in the event of a foreign animal disease outbreak, such as foot and mouth disease (FMD).
Such an event would devastate the markets for beef, lamb and pork, the same way bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) did.
We cannot sit idle, waiting for the next disease outbreak to occur before we act. By working now, livestock producers who have to live with the system can proactively build an animal traceability program to work for us and protect us from the very threats Hageman expresses in her objections.
It’s important to remember USDA’s current EID rule does not include every animal. It also decentralizes data collection to protect it from disclosure to activist groups like the Humane Society of the U.S. or others.
Likewise, the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association (NCBA) has worked to include language in the Agricultural Appropriations bill to provide funding to help reduce the costs borne by the cattlemen and women who would implement the system, an effort that could use Hageman’s support.
Rather than halting the progress USDA has made toward a national animal traceability program, I believe she should be working with industry stakeholders to advance a more workable solution for cattle producers.
To be clear, we need a nationally significant traceability system, and USDA should be held responsible for helping us fund the effort. Without a system in place, an outbreak of FMD would lead to a national 72-hour halt to livestock transportation in the U.S., until control zones and tracking measures could be put in place.
An outbreak will result in a massive decline in domestic demand for beef, pork and lamb.
Most export markets would immediately be closed to purchases of U.S. beef, pork and lamb, and the overall hit would cost the livestock and meat industry an estimated $228 billion.
NCBA, led by its volunteer members and grassroots state affiliate partners, believe in the need for a nationally significant system – one with guardrails in place – can help protect our nation’s livestock producers.
USDA’s traceability system should ultimately advance the electronic sharing of data among federal and state animal health officials, veterinarians and the industry. It should allow the sharing of basic animal disease traceability data with the federal animal health events repository (AHER).
The system should be dependent on the use of EID tags for animals requiring individual identification in order to make the transmission of data more efficient.
USDA should ensure any system enhances the ability to track animals from birth to slaughter through a system allowing tracking data points to be connected.
And, ultimately, USDA’s traceability program will help elevate the discussion with state agencies and the livestock industry to work toward a system where animal health certificates are electronically transmitted from private veterinarians to state animal health officials.
If Hageman wants to safeguard the industry, she could begin listening to the grassroots producers in her state who will depend on USDA in the event of an animal disease outbreak, rather than attempting to stonewall their efforts entirely.
We must ensure USDA’s system is compatible with private sector animal identification and verification programs backed by USDA. Ultimately, any systems we put in place must recognize existing programs for meat exports and support other potential uses of identification.
We can all agree any USDA program also requires cattle identification information for disease traceability be kept confidential and strongly protected from disclosure.
Hageman can help protect ownership information from disclosure to future owners and protect producers from liability for acts of others, after the cattle have left the producer’s control, a need she understands and agrees with.
We cannot continue to stand on the sidelines and throw rocks at USDA proposals, hoping a government agency arrives at a workable solution for livestock producers. We must be proactive and design a system to work for our industry.
We cannot continue to engage in efforts which simply block progress on this issue – this approach will only serve to hurt livestock producers in the long run.
I’d encourage Hageman to engage with a wider array of stakeholders and gather input from those whose personal experiences and perspectives differ from her own. NCBA stands ready to work with her on these efforts and others to benefit livestock producers in Wyoming and elsewhere.
Mark Eisele is the president-elect of NCBA and can be reached by visiting ncba.org.