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Mandatory U. S. Animal ID On Its Way, Beef Sector Protests

The U. S. livestock industry could soon be facing a mandatory tracking system for animals, but the proposal is being vigorously opposed by beef producers.

A voluntary animal-tracking system, known as traceback, has been in place since shortly after the country’s first case of mad cow disease in December 2003, but some members of Congress say the program, which has cost $130 million, is not working.

Several key lawmakers are threatening to withhold any more money for a voluntary system, insisting the livestock industry is no safer now from the spread of mad cow and other diseases.

After a succession of food recalls in recent months, Congress and the Obama administration are focusing more on food safety, casting a brighter light on animal identification.

“Why should we continue to appropriate money for a failed system?” Rep. Rosa DeLauro, who chairs a House Appropriations subcommittee that oversees agriculture, asked last week. “Five years have not worked. Tens of millions of dollars have not worked.”

While dairy and pork groups support a mandatory program as the best way to contain disease outbreaks that can devastate an industry, beef producers oppose the idea.

Colin Woodall, executive director of legislative affairs for the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, said the trade group would fight any mandatory animal identification system.

“It does worry us, because we just don’t support mandatory ID,” Woodall said. “Anytime they start talking about this program, and how they want to make it mandatory, we get pretty defensive pretty quickly.”

Cattle groups fear it will be expensive to purchase ID tags and to track the animals. One estimate said full participation in a national animal identification system could cost more than $200 million a year to government, businesses and producers.

RANCHERS WANT PROGRAM ENDED

They also worry that sensitive information on their operations, such as the location and number of cattle, could be accidentally released, or obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request.

R-Calf USA, a rancher group, called on Congress and the U. S. Agriculture Department to completely abandon the tracking program “because of its many flaws.”

They say the best approach to food animal safety is preventing diseases from entering the United States and boosting eradication of diseases in wildlife.

USDA’s chief veterinarian, John Clifford, told Congress he supported compiling data on where and when a food animal was born and its location when it died. It would be less cumbersome than the current proposal, he said.

The current national animal identification program is intended to track the home farm and herdmates of sick animals within 48 hours of an animal disease outbreak.

The plan was embraced by USDA after the discovery of the first U. S. case of mad cow disease in 2003, which slammed the door on U. S. beef exports around the world and leading purchasers, such as Japan and South Korea, are still edgy about importing U. S. beef.

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack told Reuters in March he was aware of the “serious dissatisfaction” among lawmakers and didn’t rule out a new system.

“Those are the people in this situation who matter, because they are the ones who can pass a mandatory bill, or they … can take money away, if they’re not happy with the system. The folks in the industry need to understand that,” Vilsack said.

CATTLE STATES BALK

The National Milk Producers Federation has estimated 75 per cent of dairy producers have registered for the voluntary system, but believes that, without a mandatory program, it will be hard to get participation from the remaining 25 per cent.

The chicken industry is encouraging its farmers to register their premises for the traceback program while pork producers stand behind a mandatory measure.

So far, 510,000 feedlots and sales barns have been registered out of the 1.4 million premises the USDA wants to sign up.

“We know that some livestock groups oppose a mandatory system, but if they’re not compelled to adopt an ID system, they’re not going to,” said Dave Warner, a spokesman with the National Pork Producers Council.

“It only takes one infected pig or cow to shut our export markets,” he said.

The pork industry has its own ID system, mirroring USDA’s, that has registered 80 per cent of hog farms.

While four states have participation rates in the USDA program higher than 98 per cent, co-operation in major cattle states has been low – with an 18 per cent rate in Texas, 21 per cent in Kansas and 56 per cent in Nebraska.

During a hearing last month, Rep. Collin Peterson, who chairs the House Agriculture Committee, warned opponents that he would make sure they were not bailed out by the government if there was an epidemic and no mandatory traceback system was in place.

“Cattle producers don’t ask for handouts,” said Woodall. “We didn’t ask for a handout after the (mad cow) incident and it’s doubtful we would ask for one” here, he added.

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