Animal identification and traceability seems to rise and fall as a priority for the U.S. livestock industry. Most signs though, suggest a continued trend toward more requirements and evolving standards, whether driven by government regulations or by private-sector marketing goals. In many cases, veterinarians can serve clients by helping them get ahead of requirements by finding financial value in identification technology and voluntary verification systems.
The animal-ID issue has featured two distinct goals: Traceability for disease control and data collection for improving animal management and market access. Whether we pursue those goals independently or together, both will continue to gain importance. USDA recognizes the potential economic impact of widespread animal-disease outbreaks and the role of traceability in limiting the damage. Food companies recognize the ongoing trend for domestic consumers and export customers wanting more information about where and how cattle were raised.
The USDA’s current animal disease traceability (ADT) rules focus exclusively on reducing disease risk. Producers can, of course, use the identification system for their own management and marketing purposes, but that is not a goal of the ADT system. According to the USDA, “An efficient and accurate animal disease traceability system helps reduce the number of animals involved in an investigation, reduces the time needed to respond, and decreases the cost to producers and the government.”
The current ADT rules, in effect since January 2013, require use of official identification for certain classes of cattle moving across state lines. The current law focuses on cattle of breeding age and dairy cattle, with a variety of exemptions for other classes.
Over the spring and summer of 2017, the USDA hosted a series of public meetings to solicit stakeholder feedback on the existing program and the next steps. In September, USDA officials discussed the results of those meetings during a strategy forum hosted by the National Institute for Animal Agriculture and the U.S. Animal Health Association.
Based on public feedback, a state and federal ADT working group has developed a list of preliminary recommendations on key issues. The recommendations, pending internal review at USDA/APHIS, will be subject to public comment. As a first step though, participants generally agreed the ADT system needs to move toward radio-frequency identification (RFID).
The current system allows visual tags, including metal National Uniform Eartagging System (NUES) tags, also known as “brite” tags, as official identification. These tags provide a low-cost option, visual ID numbers slow commerce and potentially lead to transcription errors. Forum participants generally agreed that the system needs to be secure and private, while also being fast and reliable.
Stakehholders also agree that requiring RFID, and eventually including traceability for more classes of cattle, will increase costs to producers. They potentially can offset those costs by applying RFID data to improve production efficiency and product quality, and to build premium market chains. So veterinarians can assist their clients first by preparing them for compliance, and then by finding ways to make ID and traceability pay.