Note:Sec Vilsack knows that 16% of the US 2010 consumed beef was imported. He knows that for the last 21 years the USA has not produced enough beef to feed the nation. Why then, pray tell, does he think it is important to export beef to China, much of which has to be purchased outside the USA? Why would the marble halls of USDA contain people so far removed from the real world to assume it commercially feasable to force mandatory electronic ear tags on nearly a hundred million US cattle just to sell a few ocean containers of beef to China? Who comes up with this math? The cattle ID enforcement brain-child is not about exporting! It is not about livestock disease!

–Editor

Inside U.S. Trade

Daily News

Vilsack Indicates New Traceability Rule Will Help Exports, But Exact Impact Unclear

Posted: May 23, 2011

A soon-to-be-released proposed rule from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) imposing a mandatory animal traceability system will help win more market access for U.S. meat producers by enhancing the ability of the U.S. government to respond to an animal disease outbreak, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said at a May 12 House Agriculture Committee hearing.

“One of the concerns that we often hear from our trading partners is [about] the capacity to basically trace back at least to the state of origin any problem with animal health, which is why this traceability system is important,” Vilsack said.

Only about 30 percent of cattle producers participate in the current, voluntary traceability system, Vilsack said, and the current system does not “provide us the certainty and the guarantee” that the new system will. “So we think we’re going to get much more acceptance from this effort, and that should reassure our trading partners,” he said.

One meat packing industry source agreed that a comprehensive traceability system is important to expanding exports of beef to the European Union, which has so many information requirements for imports that traceability while not expressly required is necessary nevertheless. A mandatory system could enable more companies to ship there, he said.

Japan, which currently restricts access to its market to U.S. beef exports from cattle younger than 20 months, may be more willing to further open its beef market in light of a new, mandatory traceability system, this source said, because the United States could argue it is better equipped to deal with any animal health problem.

While the new system is intended to be comprehensive and mandatory, it is unclear whether it would meet the demands of all U.S. trade partners.

For instance, China has demanded that the United States implement a system that allows cattle to be traced back not only to their state of origin, but to the farm where they were born. China has said the United States must meet this condition before it will accept beef imports from the United States (Inside U.S. Trade,Nov. 12).

A spokeswoman for USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) would not comment on whether the new proposal would be able to meet that requirement. She also would not give a more firm timeline for the proposal’s release than the one offered by Vilsack, who said it would be published by “late spring or early summer.”

But there are signs that the program would not go as far on traceability as China has demanded.

While mandatory, the new program will only apply to animals moving interstate, as these animals pose the biggest risk for spreading disease nationwide, according to a March USDA report giving the initial outlines of the proposal.

Before cattle are moved and sold across state lines, they will be affixed with a tag that bears a code indicating the state or American Indian tribe of origin and a unique numeric identifier. The state or tribe where the animal originated will then be responsible for maintaining detailed information of the animal’s origin.

This means that, in the case of a disease outbreak, it could be traced back tothe farm from which it came.

But Bill Bullard, CEO of the Ranchers-Cattlemen Action Legal Fund (R-CALF), said in an interview that while the system strengthens the government’s current ability to conduct trace-backs, it will likely not enable the government to trace back all cattle to their place of birth.

For example, if a cow changed hands several times within a state before being moved across state lines, state records would reflect only the farm where the cow was held last. That said, authorities could rely upon brands or other records kept by ranchers to trace the animal back to its farm of origin in these instances, Bullard said.

In the case of a cow that was raised and slaughtered in the same state and never moved to another, it is possible that no records would be kept under the new system. So-called “slick cows,” those with no brands and no ear tag, could also cause potential identification problems if record-keeping was not detailed, Bullard acknowledged.

So could a cow whose ear tag had fallen off, he added one reason his organization is pushing USDA to maintain the hot-iron brand as a recognized form of official identification.

The focus of the program is cattle, although it will also include changes to the way horses and poultry are tracked; regulations on swine, along with sheep and goats, will not be affected, according to the USDA report.

According to a spokeswoman for USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS), the new rule will be announced on the APHIS homepage and posted on Regulations.gov for a 60-day comment period.

“Once the comment period has closed, no comments will be accepted,” the spokeswoman said. “Consideration and response [to] all submitted comments will appear in the final rule 12 to 15 months after the close of the comment period.”

Bullard said the forthcoming proposal addresses the primary criticisms of the failed National Animal Identification System program (NAIS): that a traceability system would violate ranchers’ confidentiality and leave them unfairly exposed to liability suits in cases of food poisoning. They had also worried about the cost of the program.

The new proposal solves these issues by storing information in databases at the state level or with tribes, rather than at the federal level, where it could potentially be subject to freedom of information requests, Bullard said.

Ranchers worried that kind of producer data could be used by meat packers to gain leverage in negotiating prices, or by people who became sick after eating bad meat and wanted to sue everyone in the supply chain, he explained.

Allowing the use of cheap, metal ear tags instead of the more costly electronic tags proposed under NAIS also largely solves the problem of cost, Bullard said.

Bob Stallman, president of the American Farm Bureau Federation, said he was not familiar with the upcoming proposal but emphasized that his group has favored a voluntary approach in the past.

“Our policy has supported voluntary traceability programs,” Stallman told reporters at a May 17 press lunch, adding that some of the group’s members are involved in animal identification for more premium markets.

“There’s some involved in that,” he said. “So they’re not [all] opposed to the idea of traceability. What they’ve been opposed to is who has the information and how much is it going to cost, and how’s the information going to be used,” he said, echoing similar worries to those expressed by Bullard.

But Bullard called other parts of the forthcoming proposal a “broken promise” to his members because USDA had assured them that hot-iron brands would still be considered official identifiers under the new system, and that cattle under 18 months old would not be covered.

Bullard said the latest draft of the proposal recognizes only metal or electronic ear tags as official identifiers and would begin to cover cattle of all ages once 70 percent of cattle older than 18 months roughly the breeding age have been registered in the tracing system.

This version of the proposal has been submitted to the Office of Management and Budget and should be released soon, he added, but R-CALF is urging USDA not to publish it until those provisions are changed.

His group wants branding to be recognized as a universal identifier because ear tags can easily fall off, or be replaced by thieves. Under the proposal, brands could only be recognized through special state-to-state agreements. In the interview, Bullard also said that including younger “feeder” cattle in the system is unnecessarily burdensome.

“Our position is, there has been no demonstrated need to identify these younger animals,” Bullard said.

“We have been highly successful in eradicating diseases by focusing only on the breeding herd. And so we want to focus on the breeding herd, and when that is accomplished, we want to do a needs assessment to determine if the additional cost and burden upon the industry outweigh the benefits of the program.”

“We believe that these feeder cattle are already sufficiently traceable during their relatively short lifespans,” he added, “[and] that there is no need to mandate their identification at this time.”