HARRISBURG, Pa. — Three years after the federal government abandoned RFID (radio-frequency) tags for disease traceability purposes, a new push to more closely monitor livestock crossing state lines is starting to take shape.
Craig Shultz, director of the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture’s Bureau of Animal Health and Diagnostic Services, talked about the USDA’s Animal Disease Traceability program at the Oct. 4 Livestock and Equine Forum at the Pennsylvania Farm Show Complex.
In 2010, the USDA canceled its long planned RFID program amid public concerns about privacy issues and costs of implementing the program.
The government has since shifted its focus to an Animal Disease Traceability program, which is cheaper to implement, but the government hopes will still meet its goal of getting a comprehensive animal disease traceback system in place.
The program was finalized Jan. 9. Shultz said the new program relies on traditional ear tags and already proven animal disease tagging programs that in some cases have been in place for decades.
Shultz said the program will initially focus on cattle, with the requirement that all cattle going across state lines have an ear tag, back tag or branding that would identify them, along with a certificate of veterinary inspection or owner certificate.
“They are hoping to use local expertise to make this work at the on-the-ground, boots-on-the-ground level with the states,” Shultz said. “They are trying to minimize costs.
“It’s all about cattle. Cattle are the example species. Cattle are the species where this concept will be introduced, and it will be expanded to other species,” he said.
“Already, ID systems are in place already with sheep and goats with the scrapie program,” Shultz said. “The idea is to make it work in cattle and then to other species as time goes on. This is a work in progress, a huge work in progress.”
Unlike the RFID program, where the federal government took charge of implementation, the onus now has been placed on states to implement and enforce the program, Shultz said, albeit under federal guidelines.
States will be responsible for distributing the USDA-provided ear tags and keeping records on where they’ve been distributed. Producers will have to keep records for at least five years. RFID tags can still be used, according to Shultz, but it will be at the expense of individual producers and states.
Livestock markets interested in taking cattle from other states must be certified as an official tagging site.
Shultz said the new program provides flexibility in the types of animal ID that will be accepted. Breed-specific disease traceability programs, such as the scrapie tagging program for goats and sheep, will be accepted for official identification purposes.
Branding or breed registration IDs will also be allowed, so long as states approve them. Back tags, which are largely used in sale barns to more easily identify animals, will be accepted for direct-to-slaughter animals only.
Gauging the overall impact the new rule will have on farmers, ranchers and livestock markets is tricky, since there are many exemptions in place and the rules don’t cover in-state movement of animals.
For example, animals shipped across state lines to an approved custom slaughtering facility don’t need official identification, which largely affects livestock producers involved in direct marketing.
“If you want to buy a cow in Pennsylvania and take it to a slaughterhouse in Maryland without ID and she’s custom slaughtered at an approved custom slaughtered facility, you can do that,” he said.<\n> Another major revision involves feeder cattle under 18 months of age, which are also exempt. Shultz said it’s the government’s way of addressing concerns that the animal ID requirement would slow the transport of feeder cattle to Midwest feedlots. But he sees it as a potential disease loophole.
“If you ever had a disease issue in there, how do you trace them? As of right now, those animals move without ID. It’s a major problem for animal disease traceability,” he said. “We will not be able to say we have meaningful disease traceability until this is addressed.”
Producers in the business of raising bob veal calves will also have to identify their animals, along with owners of show animals.
“All recreational cattle are considered to be a very high disease risk, so they are required to be identified,” he said. “If you’re going to a cattle show, if you’re going to a dairy show, if you’re going to a livestock show, you’ve got to have an ID.”
With the goal of being able to trace back an animal disease to its source, states are largely responsible for getting producers to identify their animals.
Shultz said it presents potential issues in Pennsylvania, where there are only 23 field staff members tasked with dealing with potential disease tractability issues on thousands of farms.
“Enforcement is a problem, it’s a challenge. And most of these programs are designed so that there is federal support, there is cooperative agreement, and with that, there are performance standards that must be met,” he said. “We are certainly making a concerted effort in Pennsylvania, and I think most states would agree that they are trying to address this too.”
A 2009 meeting on the federal government’s implementation of the NAIS program drew dozens of angry farmers to the Farm Show Complex, as well as public meetings in other states.
Public opposition, Shultz said, is one of many reasons the federal government has no immediate plans to bring back RFID or any program similar to it. But with new export markets opening up, he thinks RFID tags might still be the wave of the future.
“That doesn’t mean in the future, as we have an expanding export market,” that markets will be able to function without RFID, he said. “We have high volume livestock markets, that cannot maintain the speed or commerce without this ID. I think there is going to be a very strong impetus to adopt RFID based on market-driven forces.
“With that said, it’s going to be a long time, and this is how we’re trying to transit from where we are to where we want to go,” Shultz said.