Animal Disease Traceability – Overview

Just before Christmas 2012, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) issued a final rule on “Animal Disease Traceability.” In brief, the final rule requires official identification and some form of documentation when adult beef cattle, dairy cattle, or show cattle cross state lines. Metal ear tags, brands, and other forms of low-tech identification are included, and there are several exemptions and provisions for flexibility. There are also requirements for poultry that cross state lines, but hatchery chicks do not have to be identified. Sheep, goat, swine, and horse owners will face few, if any, new requirements. The rule is explained in more detail in the second half of this article.

The substance of the final rule is remarkable given where it started from. In 2005, USDA released plans for the National Animal Identification System (NAIS). NAIS had been developed by a group of big Agribusinesses and high tech companies in order to promote international trade by creating comprehensive international standards for tracking animals. The plan called for every single person who owned any livestock animals, even just a pet donkey or single chicken, to: (1) register their property; (2) individually tag each animal, in most cases with electronic ID, such as microchips or RFID tags; and (3) report a long list of events from birth to death to databases that would be run by private corporations and accessible by the government. Many people thought the program was unstoppable and would be fully implemented by 2009.

A grassroots revolution quickly started, however. The incredible burdens and intrusion of the NAIS plan helped bring together people from diverse backgrounds and beliefs: organic farmers and conventional ranchers, full-time producers and homesteaders, property rights activists and sustainability advocates. A coalition of organizations, led by the Farm and Ranch Freedom Alliance (FARFA), worked together, and ultimately killed NAIS. In February 2010, Secretary Vilsack announced that USDA was abandoning the plans for NAIS due to the objections raised by “the American public and those in Rural America.”

Even as we celebrated, however, we knew that the fight was not over. Secretary Vilsack also announced that the agency would work on a replacement plan. While he promised that it would focus on low-tech forms of identification for interstate commerce, we anticipated that the devil would be in the details, and so it was.

When USDA issued its proposed Animal Disease Traceability Rule in 2011, there were numerous points of concern. Although it provided for low-tech forms of identification, the scope of the identification and paperwork requirements would have created strong pressure to move to electronic tracking and database systems. The proposed rule would have also required individual tagging of all poultry crossing state lines, including day-old chicks.

The grassroots rallied again. Approximately 16,000 comments were submitted to the USDA by the public. In addition, FARFA again led a coalition of organizations in working at the agency level, both at USDA and the Office of Management and Budget, to try to stop or significantly change the rule.

While the program was not stopped, the final rule issued by USDA addressed the majority of the concerns raised by livestock owners. Before discussing the details, it is important to recognize the scope of this rule. There are no requirements imposed by this rule for any type of movement within a state; it only applies when animals cross state lines. Even when an animal crosses state lines, there are no requirements for premises registration or electronic identification.

Under the final rule, unless otherwise exempted, livestock moved across state lines would have to be officially identified and accompanied by an interstate certificate of veterinary inspection or other documentation, such as owner-shipper statements or brand certificates.

In practical terms, sheep, goat, and pig owners will not be subject to new requirements; the rule refers to the identification requirements under existing disease control programs for these animals. Similarly, horse owners have already been identifying horses that cross state lines due to equine infectious anemia programs and will face few new burdens in practice. Horses that are used for transportation interstate, such as by horse and buggy, are exempt, which is a change from the proposed rule. The final rule also clarifies that a physical description qualifies as an official form of ID for horses without needing approval from state officials.

The main impact of the rule will be on cattle and poultry owners. For cattle, the rule requires identification and documentation for beef cattle 18 months or older, dairy cattle, and show cattle that cross state lines. In response to public comments, the agency made several changes to reduce the burdens imposed by the rule:

1) Cattle going to custom slaughter are exempt regardless of whether the meat will be consumed by the person moving the cattle or by someone else;
2) Cattle going direct to slaughter at inspected slaughterhouses can be identified with just a backtag, rather than a permanent form of identification;
3) Brands, tattoos, and breed registry certificates are official forms of identification as long as the shipping and receiving states agree;
4) The definition of “dairy cattle” has been clarified by listing specific dairy breeds (Ayrshire, Brown Swiss, Holstein, Jersey, Guernsey, Milking Shorthorn, and Red and Whites), rather than including dual purpose and mixed use breeds;
5) State and Tribal abbreviations on ear tags can be used in place of the “US” symbol on ear tags;
6) Instead of requiring a certificate of veterinary inspection for all cattle, States can agree to accept alternative documentation so as to address the scarcity of large animal vets.

The final rule also dropped any requirements for “feeder cattle” – beef cattle younger than 18 months of age. The fight over this issue has only been postponed, however, because the USDA plans to have another rulemaking specifically on feeder cattle. But no new requirements will be implemented at this time, and we will be able to focus on the specific problems posed by identifying younger animals in a separate discussion.

For poultry, the proposed rule would have required most backyard poultry owners and farmers to individually identify any bird they purchased from out of state, including day-old-chicks from hatcheries. FARFA had urged that poultry be completely exempted from the rule. While USDA did not do so, it did make two significant changes in the final rule:

1) Birds of any age shipped from a hatchery to a grower do not need to be individually identified. The grower does have to keep a record of the hatchery for two years.
2) Poultry going to a custom slaughter facility are exempt whether or not the meat will be consumed by the person moving the birds or someone else.

Poultry being moved to an inspected slaughterhouse across state lines will need to be identified under the rule, but most producers should be able to use group identification for their broilers, since broilers are typically managed in single-age groups. The greatest impact will be on live bird markets, where birds crossing state lines will most likely need to be individually identified. Notably, a senior USDA staffperson publicly stated that individual identification requirements were not cost-effective for live bird markets and urged the agency not to require it. Yet the agency chose to ignore its own expert on this issue.

Ideally, the government would not spend so much time and effort on after-the-fact measures like tracking sick animals, and would instead focus on disease prevention, including strict inspections of animals imported from other countries and supporting pasture-based systems that produce healthy animals. But the fact that USDA made so many changes, compared to both its original plan for NAIS and its more recent proposal, shows the growing power of our movement and the impact we can have when we create effective coalitions. We need to continue our work on all fronts, from more growers on the ground to more political activism, to take back control of our farms and our food.