NCBA Editorial: USDA Gets it Right on Voluntary Animal ID
DENVER - For several years, NCBA members have consistently held that a national animal identification system is necessary, but can be better accomplished on a voluntary, market-driven, and producer-led basis. While a government-mandated and government-controlled system may seem like an easier and quicker solution, NCBA has never viewed this as the answer. We’ve always maintained that the industry could provide a more secure, confidential, and efficient solution that would be met with much less resistance and mistrust than a government mandate.
At long last, we now have concurrence from USDA on this issue, which recently announced that it has no intention of making animal ID mandatory. I don’t consider this a 180-degree turn for USDA, which has said for months that its goal was to persuade most of the nation’s livestock producers to participate without imposing a mandate. But the looming threat of a mandatory deadline – even one pushed several years down the road – was clearly doing more harm than good in terms of producer participation. It lent fuel to protests and conspiracy theories, and really did nothing to give producers the information they needed to simply get involved.
I’m very proud of NCBA for abiding by the wishes of our membership, and not buckling to considerable pressure to advocate for a mandatory ID system. Nor did we “play to the crowd” out in the countryside by stirring up controversy or spreading unfounded fears about animal identification. As always, NCBA took a pragmatic stance on this issue – aimed not at gaining headlines or publicity, but simply at achieving positive results for cattlemen. That’s the approach that leads to long term success on major policy issues, and positive, productive solutions for the cattle industry.
What’s important now is that we actually capitalize on this important policy victory, and do everything we can to give voluntary, market-driven animal ID the momentum it needs to succeed. We cannot afford to simply tread water on this issue, as that could lead Congress or even USDA officials to rethink whether a mandate is really the only way to make animal identification happen. Fortunately, NCBA hasn’t merely been talking a good game on this issue, we’ve been taking important steps to support the creation of a system that will provide value-added opportunities for cattlemen, and meet the demands of both foreign and domestic customers who place an emphasis on source verification and traceability.
At this time, one of the most critical areas in which the livestock industry needs to show improvement is premises registration. USDA Under Secretary Bruce Knight recently reported that 23 percent of premises nationwide are now registered, and the agency hopes to push that figure to 25 percent by 2007. While this represents modest progress, those figures tell me that premises registration needs a significant shot in the arm. USDA has updated its National Animal Identification System User Guide and premises registration materials, which are now available to cattlemen on line at: http://www.aphis.usda.gov/traceability/. Along with its renewed emphasis on voluntary animal ID, these user-friendly tools should help USDA reach out to mainstream livestock producers. There will always be those who dig in their heels on the ID issue, but others simply need thorough, easy-to-access information to help them get started.
The cattle industry can certainly assist in this effort by better explaining the potential benefits of premises registration, as well as further steps that can be taken to register livestock movements and animal tracking data. These tools can help producers – both large and small – take advantage of value-added opportunities and improve their bottom line. But that process really begins with premises registration as a basic fundamental step. This isn’t confidential or sensitive data you’re providing. It’s really just contact and location information that can often be found in a phone book or other local directories.
Without premises registration, important profit opportunities could escape your grasp. But evidence is also mounting about the benefits of traceability when it comes to containing animal disease outbreaks and minimizing economic losses if such an event should occur. A recent study conducted by USDA in cooperation with Kansas State University shows that higher levels of traceability help streamline notification of livestock producers, as well as inoculation and prevention efforts. As a result, a potentially catastrophic disease can be more easily contained, and damage to the industry can be minimized.
I find it ironic and somewhat humorous that some organizations are lining up to take credit for USDA’s policy shift toward voluntary animal ID. When I first began speaking and writing about voluntary, market-driven animal ID many months ago, these same groups didn’t hesitate to take shots at me, as well as at NCBA. They must think we have really short memories…
But while this is an important victory for the cattle industry, I’m more interested in parlaying this policy shift into tangible, profitable results for cattlemen than engaging in any celebrations or self-congratulations. There’s a reason why NCBA doesn’t waste time “dancing in the end zone” or patting ourselves on the back. We’re already focusing on the next steps, and the challenges that still lie ahead. Our members expect and deserve nothing less.
Mike John is a cattleman from Huntsville, Missouri, and president of the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association.