Disease Traceability: Better Late than Never

The following commentary does not necessarily reflect the views of AgWeb or Farm Journal. The opinions expressed below are the author's own.

After more than 15 years of discussing, planning, and in some cases resisting, could animal disease traceability finally be coming of age?

Back in 2003, the USDA formed a national working group with representatives from across the livestock industry to hammer out a preliminary plan for a traceability system to enable a rapid, targeted response in the case of an outbreak of infectious disease such as foot and mouth disease (FMD). That working group developed the U.S. Animal Identification Plan (USAIP), which evolved into USDA’s National Animal Identification System (NAIS) in 2004. Grass-roots resistance to NAIS grew, and the program never gained traction.  

Nearly a decade later, in 2013, USDA launched its Animal Disease Traceability (ADT) system, a useful but extremely limited program that remains in place today. The current ADT program focuses on interstate movement of breeding–age cattle, 18 months of age or older, and dairy cattle. The program exempts beef calves and feeder cattle, which travel in the greatest numbers and pose the greatest risk for spreading disease as they move through marketing channels and co-mingle with cattle from multiple sources.

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, including a shift toward exclusive use of radio-frequency identification (RFID) devices for official animal ID and eventually, inclusion of feeder-cattle movements.

USDA intends to focus initially on a “bookend” system for livestock entering interstate commerce, with assignment of animal identification and tracking capabilities for the farm or ranch of origin and retirement of those ID numbers at slaughter. Eventually, the system would provide traceability through every movement and production stage from birth to slaughter.

The state of Kansas, meanwhile, is moving forward with its “Cattle Trace” pilot program, a public-private collaboration focused on ranch-to-slaughter traceability for disease surveillance and intervention. In December 2017, the Kansas Livestock Association (KLA) voted for policy supporting mandatory cattle disease traceability for all ages of cattle, which provided momentum for the program.

In addition to the KLA, Cattle Trace partners include Kansas State University, the Kansas Department of Agriculture, USDA, and individual producer stakeholders. It is being jointly funded by public and private resources.

Participants plan to enroll and track about 55,000 cattle over the next two years, using ultra-high-frequency (UHF) tags and readers, which allow users to quickly capture individual ID numbers from groups of cattle. The program’s planners designed the system to collect the minimum of necessary information for tracking in a disease outbreak – just an individual animal ID number, a GPS location, date and time.

The Cattle Trace program has three primary objectives:

  1. Develop a purpose-built infrastructure for an animal disease traceability system.
  2. Evaluate the efficiency and capabilities of the animal disease traceability system and infrastructure.
  3. Determine the value of an animal disease traceability system throughout the supply chain.

This system has good potential to serve as a model for expansion of the national ADT program. The KLA policy demonstrates growing recognition of the need for traceability among cattle producers, and today’s technology can enable full traceability with more speed, accuracy, efficiency and security compared with anything we discussed back in 2003.  

Watch for the September issue of Bovine Veterinarian for a more in-depth exploration of the current state of disease traceability.

For more information about the Cattle Trace project, go to cattletrace.org