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Published February 08, 2010, 04:00 AM

Vilsack proposes tracing system

WASHINGTON — Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack told state agriculture commissioners Feb. 5 that the U.S. Department of Agriculture will ask the states and tribal nations to administer a new system of animal identification to trace disease back to its source rather than continue development of the unpopular national animal identification system begun by the Bush administration after the discovery of mad cow disease in the United States in late 2003.

By: Jerry Hagstrom, Special to Agweek

WASHINGTON — Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack told state agriculture commissioners Feb. 5 that the U.S. Department of Agriculture will ask the states and tribal nations to administer a new system of animal identification to trace disease back to its source rather than continue development of the unpopular national animal identification system begun by the Bush administration after the discovery of mad cow disease in the United States in late 2003.

In a speech to the National Association of State Departments of Agriculture, Vilsack said the new system would be much simpler and cheaper than the proposed national system and would apply only to animals shipped in interstate commerce. After conducting 15 listening sessions at which producers complained about the system, Vilsack said he concluded, “We have to have a different approach.”

Even though some meat industry officials and trade lobbyists have argued that a national system that covers every animal would reassure foreign buyers that U.S. meat is safe, Vilsack said he thinks the new system ultimately will be more reassuring because it will have a higher rate of participation.

Old system

Bush administration Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman initially proposed a mandatory system, but cattle ranchers reacted so negatively that the Bush administration backtracked and said the system would be voluntary and eventually mandatory.

But as Vilsack noted Feb. 5, the Bush administration spent $120 million and convinced only 36 percent of animal producers to participate.

Both House Agriculture Chairman Collin Peterson, D-Minn., and House Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee Chairwoman Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., have supported mandatory animal identification, but DeLauro became so frustrated over USDA’s inability to complete the system that the fiscal year 2010 agriculture appropriations bill severely restricted funding for the program.

Vilsack said the new system “has got to be bottom up” and would be “federally supported but not federally led,” an indication that USDA will make grants to the states and tribes to run the program.

DeLauro said in a statement that she was encouraged that USDA is formulating a detailed plan, but “I am concerned that we are moving from a single system capable of integrating and analyzing information across state lines to a collection of over fifty smaller systems that rely on different technology will be less effective for national animal disease surveillance and response efforts. As thefederal agency receiving funds, designing, and implementing the program, USDA needs to maintain accountability for a successful animal disease traceability system.”

Bill Bullard, CEO of Ranchers-Cattlemen Action Legal Fund-United Stockgrowers of America, a group that has been critical of the national animal identification system, said in a telephone interview that he was “very pleased by this announcement.” Bullard said that USDA was reverting back to the system that has been successful in protecting the nation’s cattle from brucellosis. He said he did not expect producers to oppose an identification system for interstate commerce because they must already furnish certificates for brucellosis. Bullard said the decision shows that USDA has “shifted away from the international marketing goal and to the more legitimate goal of controlling diseases and said that was “refreshing.”

Bullard also said that in a briefing with producer group leaders, Vilsack had said that USDA also would “strengthen” its border controls to make sure that diseases do not enter the country.

Edwin Porter, the deputy agriculture commissioner in Maine, said the commissioners would be pleased that USDA had taken a new direction.

Porter noted that state agriculture department budgets are “getting slammed” with budget cuts and said the commissioners’ long-term reactions may depend on how much money the federal government provides to run the system.

Mandatory?

Vilsack did not use the word mandatory to describe the program, but said “we have to have a system for interstate commerce,” a statement that could result in a negative reaction in western states that ship most of their cattle to other states for slaughter.

John Clifford, a deputy administrator at USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, who has worked on animal identification for years, told reporters the new system would allow states and tribes to use animal identification systems already in place to fight brucellosis, tuberculosis and other diseases and to use simple ear tags that cost producers pennies rather than proposed technology involving tags and readers that could cost several dollars per animal. Clifford said the rulemaking process could take two years and that it is too early to tell whether the federal government would install inspectors at slaughterhouses to make sure all animals in interstate commerce are tagged.

Vilsack also announced that he will travel in April to Japan, one of the countries that have restricted U.S. beef imports since the discovery of mad cow disease.

Vilsack said he is traveling to Japan with a delegation from Iowa to honor the 50th anniversary of an airlift of Iowa pigs to Japan to help the Japanese pork industry after a typhoon resulted in the death of many animals.

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