FARFA Submits Comments to USDA on Animal Traceability Framework

The Farm and Ranch Freedom Alliance (FARFA) submits these comments on the USDA’s Animal Disease Traceability Framework. FARFA is a non-profit organization headquartered in Cameron, Texas, with members in 45 states. FARFA advocates for farmers, ranchers, and homesteaders through public education and lobbying to assure their independence in the production and marketing of their food, and to prevent the imposition of unnecessary regulatory burdens that are not in the public interest. FARFA also advocates for consumers’ access to information and resources to obtain healthy foods of their choice. FARFA promotes connections between rural and urban communities to support diversified, local agricultural systems.

We appreciate Secretary Vilsack’s commitment to transparency and public involvement as you formulate the new framework on animal traceability. We are concerned, however, that both the process of the public meetings and the substance of the Regulatory Working Group’s proposal have failed to live up to the goals set in the Secretary’s February 5th announcement. Below are our recommendations to help develop a truly workable program in a transparent, accountable manner.

I. USDA should provide data and analyses that identify the problem to be solved and provide a factual basis for developing an appropriate solution.

We are not satisfied with general statements from federal or state regulators that existing programs are considered insufficient. Prior to imposing any new regulatory burdens, the USDA has an obligation to explain, using data and facts, why new regulations are needed. We must first understand the problem before we can provide substantive input on how to fix it. Specifically, USDA should provide the public with the following information:

1) Data relating to traceability under existing programs

a. What is the total number of tracing events in the last 5 years?

b. How many failed? How many were successful?

i. How is “failure” defined? How far back was the animal able to be traced? Was the event defined as a failure based on an inability to trace the animal of interest, its cohorts, and/or its offspring?
ii. For each event, how many producers were affected?
iii. For each event, how many head of animals were affected?

c. What animal health consequences resulted from the failed traces?

d. What are the costs for successful traces? Failed traces?

i. Estimated employee hours, divided between federal and state employees?
ii. Costs of quarantines to federal and state agencies? To livestock owners?
iii. What were the costs for the additional testing, euthanasia, or other steps taken to federal and state agencies? To livestock owners?

2) Analysis of the failures

a. What analysis has been done to determine why some traces fail and some succeed?

b. What percentage of failed traces involve a gap in existing regulations (i.e. the failure occurred because the animal was not required to be identified) as opposed to a failure to comply with existing regulations (i.e. the animal should have been identified, but the ID was illegally removed or failed to be removed at slaughter)? Failures to comply with existing regulations also include such failures on the part of animal health officials or private veterinarians to report and maintain required records.

c. What role does the IT infrastructure at the state and federal agencies play? i.e. what improvements can be made by using electronic technology within the agencies without requiring electronic technology to be used by producers and veterinarians?

3) Analysis of the stated goals

The regulatory working group has set various performance goals, ranging from being able to notify the State where the animal was identified 95% of the time within 1 business day to identifying the state where the animal was last shipped from 95% of the time within 7 business days. Yet there has been no explanation of why these numbers were selected as goals. What analysis has been done to estimate the differences in outcome based on different traceability times?

4) Analysis of the role of traceability within animal health as a whole

The analysis should also address the role of traceability as one part of animal health, rather than a goal in and of itself. Preventative measures, such as preventing high-risk imports and promoting healthy animal management, are far more effective than after-the-fact traceability.

Conclusion: If USDA lacks this data and analyses, then the agency should first focus on these preliminary requirements before proposing any new regulations for animal identification and traceability. Moving ahead with new regulations before we understand what gaps exist and why under the existing regulations is wasteful and potentially counter-productive.

 

II. USDA should design the program to provide long-term support for low-cost, lowtech methods of identification.

The Secretary’s February 5th announcement included the statement that the new framework would “encourage the use of lower-cost technology.” Unfortunately, there have been multiple statements by both USDA employees and members of the Regulatory Working Group that, while the program will start with lower-cost technology, RFID identification technology is the preferred option in the long term. These statements focus on the benefits to state agencies and the largest-scale producers, while ignoring the costs for the majority of producers who have
consistently opposed mandatory RFID requirements.

While the agency cannot be responsible for what private industry does or what might happen in the future, the agency’s decisions about aspects of its program can heavily influence the future. This is particularly true when it comes to technology. Low-cost technologies such as brands, tattoos, and metal tags are practical choices for programs that do not require tracing of intermediate movements and that minimize the need for hand transcription.

In contrast, the use of 15-digit numbers (as is used in the 840 numbering system) are impractical for low-tech identification because of the error rates in hand transcriptions and would ultimately force producers to use electronic ID. In addition, for some breeds of animals (particularly goats), ear tags of any type are challenging to apply and maintain.

We therefore urge the agency to commit to maintaining the 7-digit and 9-digit official ID numbers, which is compatible with the continued use of metal tags and tattoos for identification.

We also urge the agency to commit to maintaining a book-end approach, so that producers, sales barn owners, veterinarians, and other people who manage animals on a daily basis are not placed under the unnecessary burden of recording intermediate transactions.
III. USDA should clearly limit the program to interstate tracing only.

The February announcement stated that the new framework would apply to animals that moved in interstate commerce. The term evoked many concerns about the scope of “interstate commerce,” due to the many court opinions and statutes that use the term to encompass anything that could affect or impact interstate commerce. In response, USDA provided a clarification that the new framework would only apply to animals that actually cross state lines and would trace the animals back to the state.

Unfortunately, while the Regulatory Working Group’s proposal conforms to the commitment to apply only to animals that cross state lines, portions of the proposal involve intrastate tracking and could easily lead the program to expand further.

The Regulatory Working Group’s proposal includes four performance standards, which set how quickly States and Tribes must be able to perform four activities:

1. The State where the animal is located must notify the State or Tribe where the animal of interest was originally identified: 95% within 1 business day.

2. The State or Tribe where the animal of interest was officially identified must identify the “traceability unit” in which the animal was identified: 75% within 5 business days, with a later phase requiring 95% within 2 business days.

3. The State where the animal is located must notify the State or Tribe from which the animal was last shipped: 95% within 7 business days, with a later phase requiring 95% within 3 business days .

4. The State from which the animal was last shipped must identify the “traceability unit” from which the animal was shipped: 75% within 5 business days, with a later phase requiring 95% within 2 business days ction items 2 and 4 involve intrastate tracking and should be deleted based on that fact alone.

Moreover, at the public meetings, three members of the Regulatory Working Group have provided three different definitions of the term “traceability unit” for action items 2 and 4. The only point of agreement appears to be that the term will be defined by State agencies. But creating a federal standard for a term that will be defined at the State level creates significant ambiguity and potential for confusion. The issue of tracking within the States should be truly
left to the States, without imposing a federal standard.

 

IV. The regulatory framework and supporting IT systems should connect identification numbers to contact information rather than property identification.

The NAIS requirement for registering individuals’ real property has been of major concern to many landowners. At the Texas public meeting, Dr. Brewer, the Oklahoma State vet and a member of the 10-person Regulatory Working Group, stated that the “traceability unit” was ultimately a premises (Transcript, p.66), raising this issue yet again.

There is no need to register people’s real property. The brucellosis program has functioned well by linking animal IDs to contact information for the veterinarians who placed the IDs on the animals, and the same principle can be applied to individuals applying official ID to their own animals. We urge USDA to drop any plans for registration of real property and ensure that the IT infrastructure allows for contact information to be used without including a premises ID number.

 

V. The Advisory Committee appointments should reflect the majority of animal owners.

In choosing people to sit on the Secretary’s Advisory Committee on Animal Health, we urge USDA to include a significant number of people who represent family-scale farmers and smallscale animal owners. Typically, the vast majority of seats on an Advisory Committee or Working Group are made up of people representing the very largest farms, feedlots, and meat packers. But while these individuals may own the majority of the animals, the vast majority of the people who will be affected by any plan for animal traceability are family farmers and ranchers, homesteaders, and hobbyists.

For example, in the 2007 Census, the USDA found 648,571 farms that had fewer than 50 head of cattle, making up approximately 67% of the total number of farms with cattle. In contrast, farms with more than 1,000 head of cattle made up just 1% of the total number of farms, even though they accounted for 34% of the total cattle. When it comes to sheep and poultry, the numbers are even more skewed. The 2007 Census found 75,959 farms with fewer than 100 head of sheep, making up 91% of the total number of farms with sheep. Farms with less than 100 laying hens
made up 93% of the total number of farms with layers.

The Census numbers do not reflect people who are raising animals only for personal use or under $1,000 annually, so the actual number of small-scale animal owners who are affected are even larger.

We urge USDA to consider the number of people who will be affected by any change in the regulations governing animal health programs. The Secretary’s Advisory Committee should reflect the reality that, despite the consolidation of the agricultural industry, small-scale producers still make up the majority of people who are responsible for the day-to-day health and welfare of their animals.
VI. Conclusion

We appreciate your decision to drop the plans for the National Animal Identification System after conducting last year’s listening sessions. The message sent by those who attended went beyond the formal plan for NAIS, however. The vast majority of those who attended expressed that they want USDA to focus on real problems for animal health, which requires preliminary analyses based on facts and data, not the conclusory assertions of health officials. The attendees also resoundingly rejected registration of real property, mandatory RFID technology, and USDA
requirements for intrastate movements. We urge you to respect those concerns and develop a new framework that will be consistent with the needs and interests of the majority of animal owners over the long term.

Sincerely,
Judith McGeary
Executive Director
Farm and Ranch Freedom Alliance
P.O. Box 809
Cameron, TX 76520