USDA modifies its final animal traceability rule

Issue Date: December 26, 2012
By Ching Lee

The U.S. Department of Agriculture has finalized its rules for identifying and tracing livestock across state lines in the event of a disease outbreak.

Announced last week, the final rule applies only to cattle and other livestock moving across state borders. Unless specifically exempted, those animals would need to be officially identified and accompanied by an interstate certificate of veterinary inspection or other documentation, such as owner-shipper statements or brand certificates.

The rule is scheduled to be published in the Dec. 28 Federal Register and will become effective 60 days after publication. It lays out appropriate forms of numbering systems and official identification devices, such as ear tags, that USDA has authorized for each species.

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack characterized the final rule as "a flexible, effective animal disease traceability system for livestock moving interstate, without undue burdens for ranchers and U.S. livestock businesses."

"The final rule meets the diverse needs of the countryside where states and tribes can develop systems for tracking animals that work best for them and their producers, while addressing any gaps in our overall disease-response efforts," he said.

After considering public comments it received, USDA said it made several changes to the rule it had proposed in August 2011. The department now recognizes brands, tattoos and brand registration as official identification for cattle, so long as both the shipping and receiving states agree to it. Previously, the department proposed ear tags to be the only device that could be used as official identification for cattle.

California has had a brand inspection system for years and ranchers repeatedly asked USDA to recognize this method of cattle identification for its traceability program.

"Farm Bureau submitted detailed comments seeking a number of changes in the rule, and we'll look carefully at the final rule to see if USDA has met the concerns expressed by ranchers and farmers in California and elsewhere in the West," said Kenny Watkins, a cattle rancher from Linden and first vice president of the California Farm Bureau Federation.

Other changes in the rule include: permanently maintaining the use of back tags as an alternative to official ear tags for cattle and bison moved directly to slaughter; accepting movement documentation other than an Interstate Certificate of Veterinary Inspection for all ages and classes of cattle when accepted by the shipping and receiving states; clarifying that all livestock moved interstate to a custom slaughter facility are exempt from the regulations; and exempting chicks moved interstate from a hatchery from the official identification requirements.

The rule exempts beef cattle under 18 months of age from the requirements, unless the animals are moved interstate for shows, exhibitions, rodeos or recreational events. USDA said it will address the specific traceability requirements for this group in separate rulemaking.

The department has been working to improve its ability to trace livestock when there is a disease event after the nation's first case of bovine spongiform encephalopathy in 2003.

In 2006, USDA initiated the National Animal Identification System, a voluntary program that asked producers to register their premises and identify their animals with a national animal tracking database. That program was never widely accepted by producers, many of whom cited concerns about cost, confidentiality, liability, privacy and government interference, and was eventually discontinued.

After holding public meetings and getting feedback from producers, USDA announced the framework of the current rule, which it said allows flexibility for states and producers to develop systems that work best for them, applies only to animals moving interstate and encourages the use of low-cost technology.

Inyo County cattle rancher Tom Talbot, a large-animal veterinarian and past-president of the California Cattlemen's Association, said he hopes the final rule will bring some flexibility to California ranchers.

"What we wanted to make sure of was that we got an animal disease traceability system in place that didn't pose tremendous burdens to us," Talbot said.

To encourage cattle ranchers to mark animals with metal ear tags or "brite" tags, also known as the National Uniform Eartagging System, USDA said it plans to provide them at no cost to producers to the extent funds are available. Ranchers may still use official ear tags with radio frequency, but states may not require these tags be used for cattle moving into their jurisdiction, a change to existing regulations in which states can currently require a specific identification method.

USDA noted that most producers already identify their livestock and move them interstate with documentation, and for them, the cost of compliance would be negligible. For others, costs of the program are expected to vary by operation and whether traceability would be by individual animal or by lot or group.

Most California dairy farmers already have tracking systems in place. Sheep and goat producers would continue to conform to existing scrapie regulations. Poultry farmers also may use identification methods already required under National Poultry Improvement Plan regulations.

(Ching Lee is an assistant editor of Ag Alert. She may be contacted at Assistant Editor Christine Souza contributed to this story.)

Permission for use is granted, however, credit must be made to the California Farm Bureau Federation when reprinting this item.