USDA Implements New Program to Track Livestock

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MILWAUKEE (TheBlaze/AP) — The federal government has launched a mandatory livestock identification program that officials say will help them quickly track livestock in cases of disease.

The federal government has been trying for nearly a decade to establish an animal identification system. It introduced a voluntary program in 2006 but scrapped it several years later amid widespread complaints from farmers about the expense and red tape. Some also worried about possible privacy violations with the collection of information about their properties. The program ultimately failed because relatively few participated.

The new program is mandatory but supposedly limited in scope. It applies only to animals being shipped across state lines, and it gives states flexibility in deciding how animals will be identified.

The rules that went into effect March 11 require dairy cows and sexually intact beef cattle over 18 months of age to be registered when they are shipped over state lines and outline acceptable forms of identification. In most cases, farmers and ranchers are likely to use ear tags that assign a number to each animal.

There has been talk for years among consumer advocates about establishing a program that would trace food from farm to plate. The livestock identification system doesn’t go that far. Its stated goal is to track animals’ movements so agriculture and health officials can quickly establish quarantines and take other steps to prevent the spread of disease.

While the program covers a range of livestock, much of the focus has been on cattle. That’s partly because aggressive programs to fight diseases such as sheep scabies have already resulted in widespread identification of those animals, said Neil Hammerschmidt, APHIS’ animal disease traceability program manager.

Tracking cows has been less of a concern over the past decade because earlier programs targeting diseases that affect them have been successful.

Still, tracebacks — in which a sick animal’s movements are reviewed as part of the effort to control the spread of a disease — aren’t unusual.

In Wisconsin, many of the larger dairy farms have already switched to ear tags that can be scanned electronically, said Mark Diederichs, president of the Board of Directors of the Professional Dairy Producers of Wisconsin. The tags meet federal standards but aren’t required because of the cost.

Diederichs and his partners, who have about 5,400 cows split between farms in Malone and Poy Sippi, began using them eight years ago in part because they save time. Workers with hand-held devices can scan the tags and immediately pull up animals’ birth, medical and other records.

The tags also are important as companies like McDonald’s want to know where their food came from and be able to trace it back, Diederichs said, adding, “I think that’s going to be the bigger push” for others to switch.

The federal rules allow two states to agree on alternative forms of identification, such as brands, for use with animals shipped between them.

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