USDA Public Meetings on Animal Traceability

As of July, USDA has held five public meetings on its new animal traceability framework. These meetings are much more controlled and government-dominated than last year’s listening sessions on NAIS. The agenda for each of these sessions calls for questions to be answered only at the end of the meeting, after the participants are broken out into tables to provide input. At each breakout table, there are several USDA and state agency staff, guiding the conversation. And since the breakout groups’ discussions are not in the record – only a brief report at the end of the session is recorded – many comments are simply lost in the process. As a result, many comments that are opposed to the USDA’s plans get screened out.

The USDA’s new proposal was developed by a “Regulatory Working Group” (RWG) made up of five state vets and five tribal representatives. The 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

Judith McGeary represented FARFA at both the Colorado meeting in May and the most recent Texas meeting. Many farmers, sale barn owners, horse owners, and consumers also came, and raised many concerns.

  • What is the basis for the new proposal? While the “performance standards” are less stringent than NAIS was, they still lack a scientific basis. At my breakout table, a USDA vet stated that the performance standards were based on the “experience” of the state vets and regulatory officials. While experience is important, why is their experience prioritized over the experience of animal owners who deal with animal health every day? Before imposing any new requirements on animal owners, the agency needs to provide solid scientific and economic analyses to show why these steps are needed.
  • Are performance standards the right approach? Should USDA be setting standards when it is far from clear how the States would be able to achieve them?
  • There is still no analysis of where the real problem lies. Is it truly an animal identification problem? Or are the problems with traceability due to bureaucratic inefficiencies or other issues? On the issue of animal health, where are the gaps?
  • There is a continued assumption that electronic ID is the best approach. While USDA has committed to using low-tech methods for the framework, there are repeated references to “progress over time,” and every government speaker emphasized the benefits of RFID tags. I asked whether USDA intended to analyze the effectiveness of the program before moving towards electronic ID, pointing to the success of the scrapie program using non-electronic ID. In response, Neil Hammerschmidt said there were no such plans. Dr. Wiemers went further, and contended that, while non-electronic ID has worked for the scrapie program, it is not sufficient for tracing all movements. Yet the advocates of electronic ID continue to fail to show that it is needed or cost-effective.

In addition to the problems with the substance of the proposal, the public meeting also revealed problems with USDA’s process in developing the new framework:

  • The Regulatory Working Group (“RWG”), which wrote the new standard, was chosen after getting recommendations from “industry.” But, to our knowledge, no sustainable agriculture or small farm organizations were asked for recommendations. Yet again, Big Ag got to set the stage.
  • While there were 10 people on the RWG, they created three subgroups. Only one subgroup wrote the standard. So the proposed performance standards were developed by just three or four regulatory officials.
  • The proposal itself is confusing and unclear. For example, there is no written definition of “traceability unit,” and we’ve now heard three different definitions at three different public meetings. At the Colorado meeting, Colorado State Vet Dr. Roehr stated that it was a geographical unit and could be anything from the whole state to a set of counties to a county to an individual premises. At the Utah meeting, Montana State Vet Dr. Zaluski stated that the traceability unit was either a physical location or a group of animals. At the Texas meeting, Oklahoma State Vet Dr. Brewer stated that “ultimately” it is a premises. Three members of the RWG, with three different statements on what the term means!

How can the public provide input when the people who drafted the proposal can’t even explain it clearly? How can we provide useful input without first getting answers about what the program is, how it will be implemented, its purposes and goals? The proposal is extremely ambiguous, but it appears to set the stage for traceability back to individual premises and ultimately RFID tagging of each animal. Is this USDA’s intent? Or is it being driven by industry and the career bureaucrats who have spent more than a decade building NAIS? Right now, it’s not clear.

USDA needs to go back to the drawing board on both the proposal and the method for getting public input, and we must all be ready to counter any attempt to implement NAIS through piecemeal steps.