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Published July 22, 2009, 12:00 AM

Commissioner Hugoson urges USDA to reshape animal identification discussion

Letter to Secretary Vilsack suggests bigger state role and a focus on "how to do it" instead of "why to do it."

Citing the importance of animal traceability in responding to food safety threats and livestock disease outbreaks, Minnesota Agriculture Commissioner Gene Hugoson and Minnesota State Veterinarian Dr. Bill Hartmann recently sent a joint letter to U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack urging him to resume the discussion about implementing a national animal identification system.

Commissioner Hugoson and Dr. Hartmann acknowledged the controversy generated by earlier debates over the proposed National Animal Identification System (NAIS), and they encouraged Secretary Vilsack to set aside the bogged-down debate about whether to implement that system.

Instead, Hugoson and Hartmann suggested a greater emphasis on practical issues related to development of a modern, high-quality animal traceability system that respects producer privacy concerns while also providing animal health officials with timely information needed to fight animal diseases and foodborne illnesses.

“While most parties can agree on the importance of improving animal traceability for food safety, animal health and marketing purposes, it seems very difficult to find consensus on how best to build workable systems to accomplish these goals,” they wrote in their letter. “Rather than being drawn into the debates … take this opportunity to reshape the discussion with a focus on how we improve animal traceability”

The letter urged greater involvement of state animal health officials, citing their role as first responders to animal diseases. Hugoson and Hartmann said this role makes it vital for state responders to build and maintain accurate and updated information systems with producer contacts and livestock premises information.

“We believe the most important component of a disease investigation is the ability of state officials to contact affected livestock producers or handlers in a timely manner,” Hugoson and Hartmann wrote. “Overreliance on a national database system may lead to problems …a better blueprint would be to empower states to build modern, accurate, and nationally compatible systems to effectively trace animal diseases.”

The letter points out that a less centralized system with greater state involvement may be easier for some producers to accept.

“We believe enhancing state systems will garner more producer participation and improve animal disease response and traceability,” Hugoson and Hartmann wrote. “Additionally, data privacy concerns can be better addressed by state statutes.”