Remember NAIS, or National Animal Identification System? It was the USDA program that was essentially abandoned after drawing ire from producers who thought the system was difficult and expensive to initiate. After dropping the concept of NAIS, USDA officials worked on developing a program that was more flexible and that would improve the ability to track animal movement across state lines, and came up with USDA/APHIS veterinarian Dr. Paul Pitcher says one justification for a national database of beef cattle is the international market. “Our consumers are present around the globe,” said Pitcher. “Producers in the United States are under the gun to be more responsive to the international customer. Animal traceability is becoming more important and will impact producers’ ability to make a profit.”
Pitcher noted that some countries have tighter drug withdrawal requirements. “Japan has lower tolerances for residue in meat than the U.S. does,” he said. “We actually have two different withdrawal times.”
International customers are interested in what United States producers are doing to control disease issues, especially diseases that can potentially impact human health. “There’s an onus on us as producers who want to maintain a marketplace for our product to embrace animal disease traceability,” said Pitcher.
However, Pitcher says in general, producers are reluctant to provide information about the origin of animals. “If an animal shows up at a slaughter plant with a disease problem that has to be traced back to the farm, most producers would say that they really don’t want that animal traced back to their farm,” he said. “Are they saying that they really don’t care about the industry, or about their own farm?”
Pitcher noted that all slaughter cattle coming into the United States from Canada, about 3,000 per week, all have RFID. “We can trace back to the farm of origin by waving a wand,” he said.
Beef producers will remember the BSE (bovine spongiform encephalopathy) incident and the cow that stole Christmas. “She was diagnosed on Dec. 23, 2003,” said Pitcher. “The reason she stole Christmas is that the whole thing tied up everyone in the industry through the holidays.”
Although there was an intense investigation over a period of several weeks, investigators came up with nothing about the cow’s farm of origin. Worse, the beef industry suffered tremendous losses in both domestic and export markets.
A case of BSE in April 2012 was the fourth incidence of BSE in the United States, but only the second in a cow of U.S. origin. “In that case, the cow and the rest of the herd were all identified, all documented on health certificates and we were able to trace back to the source farm,” said Pitcher. “Lack of traceability is a hindrance in assuring customers that we handle public health disease issues.”
Pitcher explains the key principles of the new federal animal disease traceability requirements, effective March 2013. “We want to maintain and expand traceability infrastructure,” he said. “The program would be administered by states, which leads to flexibility in how the program is implemented. We want effective solutions that minimize the cost in dollars and human expenditure of time, and that support advanced technology such as RFID (radio frequency identification).”
There’s currently an effort to step up the use of identification for traceability. “We’re focusing on bovine in our efforts to improve the system,” said Pitcher, noting that traceability currently applies only to interstate commerce, or animals moving from one state to another. “We have poor compliance in the cattle sector.”
Cattle (beef and dairy) and bison are currently required to have one of several approved identifications: an official ear tag, which can be a metal National Uniform Eartagging System (NUES) tag; an Animal Identification Number (AIN) that is visual only or with radio frequency; location-based premises identification and a unique within-herd number. Also acceptable are brands that are registered with a recognized brand inspection authority when the animal is accompanied by an official brand certificate and both the sending and receiving state veterinarians agree that the brand is official ID.
Permanent tattoos on purebred animals are also acceptable, provided that the tattoo is recognized and accepted by a breed association when the animal is accompanied by the registration certificate issued by the breed association; and state veterinarians in both the sending and receiving states have agreed to accept this as official ID.
Group or lot identification is acceptable when the ID uniquely identifies that unit of animals as being managed as one group throughout the preharvest production chain. Back tags are an acceptable form of official identification for animals moving directly to slaughter.
Beef cattle over the age of 18 months must carry official identification; all dairy cattle must be officially identified on day one of age. “From the day-old calf to the 4-year old cull cow,” said Pitcher. “They all need to have official ID when they move interstate.” Beef cattle under the age of 18 months that are being moved interstate for shows, rodeos or recreational events must be identified. Pitcher noted that at some point, all beef cattle under the age of 18 months will be required to have identification.
As of March 2015, all forms of identification must include the official U.S. shield and the numerals ‘840’ prefix that identifies the animal as being of United States origin.
“We have to start thinking like a community,” said Pitcher. “What’s good for the community is good for me, not the other way around. We have a way to go before we get to that place.”
Producers can view complete information about identification requirements at www.aphis.usda.gov/wps/portal/aphis/ourfocus/animalhealth .