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Published May 23, 2011, 09:09 AM

Committee addresses protection of livestock

GRASS RANGE, Mont. — The first meeting of the Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack’s Advisory Committee on Animal Health, held in late January, discussed a proposed rule to create a coordinated system to improve livestock traceability in interstate commerce.

By: Gilles Stockton,

GRASS RANGE, Mont. — The first meeting of the Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack’s Advisory Committee on Animal Health, held in late January, discussed a proposed rule to create a coordinated system to improve livestock traceability in interstate commerce. I was appointed to this committee in December. There are 20 members in all, and our mandate is to represent the various constituencies within the livestock industry in a review of the efficacy and acceptability of the policies governing how the nation’s livestock are protected from disease threats.

Dr. Clifford Clark, the chief veterinary officer for the United States, assured committee members that the proposed rule was not a backdoor attempt to create the National Animal Identification System. Where the NAIS proposal called for tracking the movement of livestock from birth to death, the interstate traceability proposal is a much simpler “bookend” system.

Interstate traceability

Under this proposed interstate traceability rule, when an animal with a disease of concern is reported, the veterinary service wants to know where that animal originated. From that point, they would access the paper trail of ownership changes to trace down all of the places that animal spent time.

The veterinary service currently can get this information from only 39 percent of the beef cattle — and 41 percent in dairy cattle — and sometimes it takes them up to six months to trace-back the movement of a cow diagnosed with a disease such as tuberculosis. Veterinary authorities had better results in the past when the brucellosis eradication system was in full force. Ironically, success in eliminating brucellosis has compromised our ability to respond to disease outbreaks.

As proposed, the traceability program acknowledges that each state and tribal government has jurisdiction over internal livestock movements. The federal government, however, has an interest in interstate movements and, as such, needs to know from which state a diseased animal originated. The preferred method will be for producers to use a numbered metal ear tag that identifies the original owner and premise. Those of us that have brands and vaccinate for brucellosis already meet these requirements. Sheep and goat producers also meet the requirements because of the scrapie eradication program.

Three issues

However, I am not yet completely comfortable with three aspects to this proposed rule: First, the administrative procedures for maintaining and accessing current health certificates and movement documents are, in some states and tribal areas, seriously inadequate. States and tribes will be encouraged to modernize the systems. Having the paper copies of health certificates and bill of sales scanned and kept in compatible electronic data bases would be very useful. What worries me is that producers will be required to put ear tags in the animals and keep records, but, because of budget cuts, some of the states and tribes will not be able to up-grade their record-keeping systems.

Producers will be stuck with extra costs and bother, but the overall system will not improve. Before producers are required to ear tag their livestock, the states and tribes should be required to modernize their record-keeping systems.

My second concern is that the veterinary service is designing the system to respond to a “theoretical,” highly pathogenic disease that requires fast mobilization to contain and eradicate. The committee talked about whether this system would be adequate to respond to foot- and-mouth disease. Clifford reluctantly admits that probably no system, however rigorous, would contain an FMD outbreak. So, is this “theoretical,” highly pathogenic disease standard also realistic?

My first instinct is that the system initially should be designed to contain and eliminate the “known” diseases of brucellosis, tuberculosis, BSE and scrapie. Once we have those taken care of, we can talk about meeting a higher standard.

My third concern has to do with incorporating feeder cattle into the trace-back system. According to the plan, feeder cattle trace-back would be included after the breeding animal trace back was brought up to 70 percent compliance. At the first meeting, did not have the time to discuss in detail about the feeder cattle requirement, but I am unconvinced of the practicality or utility. If you put tags in at branding, many would get lost over the summer, and, on many operations, it is not easy to ear tag feeder calves in the fall before shipping. This topic needs clarification and discussion.

USDA officials have had to assume that their budget will be cut by Congress and that they will be required to do more with less. This is one reason they are so keen on streamlining the interstate traceability system. It certainly is good that USDA is looking for how to do its job more efficiently.

But we, as livestock producers and taxpayers, need to be realistic and understand that the veterinary service’s mandate is complex and technologically sophisticated. The network of research facilities, diagnostic laboratories and emergency response teams requires experienced experts, trained technicians and modern high-tech equipment. You can’t turn a system like this on and off like a water tap. If and when we need the veterinary service because of a disease outbreak, it has to be there — ready to go — and fully operational. Underfunding the veterinary service could have serious economic repercussions. I don’t know what the proper funding level is, but through this advisory committee, we have an opportunity to a find out.

Discussing diseases

The advisory committee only meets twice a year, but we will have conference calls where the public can listen. Besides clarifying my concerns, I hope we will discuss the major cattle and sheep disease threats such as FMD, BSE, scrapie, tuberculosis, and brucellosis. We also will have sessions on the major hog diseases, and a subcommittee will look at aquaculture issues. Another important issue to explore is how to protect the United States’ livestock herd from the importation of foreign diseases.

I am hopeful this committee will be a useful way for livestock producers to have meaningful input in veterinary policy and how the veterinary services are structured. I look forward to hearing your thoughts and input about all of these issues.

Editor’s Note: Stockton is a rancher and member of the Western Organization of Resource Councils from Grass Range, Mont.