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More time needed for U.S. to figure out animal identification?

Many U.S. competitors, such as Australia and Canada, have figured it out, but Secretary Vilsack wants several more months of listening sessions.

Seated around a large oval table in USDA's headquarters, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack recently set the stage for what some thought might be a showdown. His challenge to the 28 groups represented around the table: "Create a system that allows us to market our livestock as the highest quality and best in the world." That includes a workable National Animal Identification System (NAIS) that protects animal health and allows traceability within 48 hours.

"I don't underestimate the difficulty of this. I know there are very strong feelings about this. But I just want you to think about the possibility, even if it's remote, of Congress one day just simply saying: We're not going to continue to fund the system. How reliable would the market be, and what would we do then?" Vilsack asked the group.

USDA Moderator Larry Quinn gave each person 3 to 5 minutes to speak, either in person or via conference call. Vilsack took extensive notes and rarely looked up as each participant talked about their groups' progress, or lack thereof, toward reaching his goals and how the NAIS should be changed. As with any gathering of farm organizations, the number of different responses usually equals the number of different responders.

Shortly afterwards, the Secretary held a brief press conference to tell us that he heard several comments about cost, confidentiality, and the overall credibility of USDA's efforts. But instead of a showdown and what could have been a call for a mandatory program, Vilsack offered an olive leaf, of sorts. He plans to take the show on the road for the next four to six months to hear even more concerns.

Heard it before?

Ever since USDA officials started the process of trying to create a voluntary animal ID system over five years ago, they've had their share of feedback, ranging from compliments to hate mail. Some were simply frustrated with what seemed like an ever-changing effort to please the most and ended up pleasing few.

Still, some sectors say it is in their best interest to develop a traceable system. The nation's pork producers already have a mandatory system in place and suggest that it is the only way to get the job done before some type of outbreak hits.

"The cost of a foreign animal disease to the pork industry and the government would be staggering," Neil Dierks, the CEO of the National Pork Producers Council, told Vilsack during the meeting.

"It was estimated in 2005 that a foot-and-mouth disease outbreak would cost the U.S. pork industry alone between $40 and $60 billion. A mandatory ID system would substantially mitigate those costs, because of the ability to control the disease earlier."

The sooner reliable data is available, the sooner affected animals can be located, appropriate response measures can be established, and disease spread can be halted, points out USDA in an extensive business plan written about this topic. USDA defines retrieval of traceback data within a 48-hour window as optimal for "efficient, effective disease containment. Within this time frame, animal health officials must have the data required to trace a disease back to its source and limit potential harm to animal agriculture, such as loss of producer income," according to that document.

However, other groups are adamantly opposed to a mandatory effort, citing concerns about cost, confidentiality and an apparent lack of trust in USDA's handling of this issue.

"The extreme lack of producer confidence in USDA surrounding NAIS is a hurdle that is becoming more and more difficult for the agency to overcome," reported Chuck Kiker, U.S. Cattlemen's Association (USCA) Region V Director. "Until USDA restores that confidence, producers aren't going to buy into a voluntary program and, likewise, that lack of stakeholder confidence and support will be the demise of any effort to implement a mandatory system," warned Kiker.

Losing patience

As the debate continues within the livestock community, more and more members of Congress are asking why taxpayers should fund an effort that is not producing results. Only about one-third of the farms and ranches that own livestock have registered their premises-one of the easiest and first steps of the animal identification process.

House Agriculture Committee Chairman Collin Peterson (D-MN) is growing impatient that, after five years, "we are still in pretty much the same place," emphasized Peterson during a recent hearing on animal ID. "Even worse, many of the crucial aspects of the program show little promise of ever being substantially implemented.

"Agency staff told us that the program as currently structured would never be effective in providing the country with a reliable trace-back system. The stakeholders out there need to get together and resolve their differences; a mandatory animal ID system is crucial in order to avoid the economic consequences of a major animal disease outbreak."

Rep. Rosa DeLauro, who chairs the House Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee that approves the funding, seems to also be losing patience.

"I have long been a supporter of a mandatory animal ID program," emphasizes DeLauro (D-CT). "However, I continue to be concerned and frustrated by the seemingly slow and expensive progress on implementing an effective animal ID system in this country. Over the past five years taxpayers will have given USDA approximately $142 million for the national animal ID program with virtually nothing to show for it."

Both DeLauro and Peterson have shared their concerns with Vilsack. While they are likely to give their fellow Democrat a few months to conduct his listening sessions, they will eventually expect answers. Few will be surprised if his journey takes the new Secretary back to what some at USDA have been saying all along: Without some kind of financial incentive or mandate, the NAIS is likely to languish even longer.

Editor's note: Columnist Sara Wyant is president of Agri-Pulse Communications, Inc. and publishes a bi-weekly newsletter, Agri-Pulse, on food and farm policy. For more information, you can e-mail her at Agripulse@aol.com.

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