Traceability rule could prove beneficial for controlling animal diseases
By Kylene Scott
Imagine an animal disease outbreak is occurring on your farm or ranch, or maybe even a neighboring place. Knowing where the animals came from and their subsequent contact with more animals will help control the spread of the disease as well as possibly prevent future outbreaks.
Recently, Dr. Valarie Ragan, director of the Center for Public and Corporate of Veterinary Medicine at the Virginia/Maryland Regional College of Veterinary Medicine, spoke about the final rule released by the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service. She believes it has the potential to positively affect the control of diseases in the United States. The rule was first published Jan. 9, and was effective March 11.
“The whole idea of being able to rapidly get health certification and animal disease information is really critical in controlling disease,” she said.
Why a rule?
According to the APHIS factsheet, animal disease traceability does not prevent disease; yet, an efficient and accurate traceability system helps reduce the number of animals involved in a disease investigation and reduces the time needed to respond. Reducing the number of animal owners impacted by an animal disease event reduces the economic strain on owners and affected communities.
Ragan said it is important to recognize that with international trading partners there needs to be awareness about the rule and that previous proposed rules have not meant to imply that there is no animal identification in the United States.
“There have been, and are a large number of animal identification systems that vary species, and have been in the United States for a very long time,” she said. “Which is why we’ve been able to be successful to the degree that we have on national disease eradication programs.”
Ragan previously worked on the effort to eradicate brucellosis in the U.S., and in turn found that by identifying and tracking herds with the disease they were able to have a database of sorts and know where herds are. The program was very successful, but had an unintended downside.
“As we’ve been successful in eradicating brucellosis and some of the other diseases that we’ve eliminated in this country, we’ve also (almost) successfully eliminated our animal identification systems,” Ragan said. “But certainly we minimized the number of animals in this country that have been identified as these programs have largely been based on national disease eradication programs.”
Specifically, with brucellosis, thousands and thousands of cows in this country were vaccinated and then tagged as heifers, Ragan said. Over the years the number of animals that have been vaccinated, tested and subsequently tagged has significantly decreased.
“The recognition that this was happening, it was not a brand new awareness which is one reason it’s taken quite a while for this rule to evolve,” Ragan said. “It wasn’t until it could finally be published as a rule that could be implemented and so there have been a number of attempts to get animal identification and traceability systems in place.”
Because of the size and scope of the livestock industry in the United States, it is a very complex undertaking to try to implement something like the animal disease traceability final rule.
“Now that we finally have a rule that will allow us to at least take the initial steps of putting a system in place that’s been needed over the years as we’ve eliminated it or minimized identification with our successful disease programs,” Ragan said.
Ragan said this rule is important for two reasons. First, and the most obvious one, is to minimize disease impacts, and second, to protect export markets.
“Anytime we have a disease occurrence in this country, be it major or minor, that is a foreign animal disease or considered to be foreign to other countries, it’s very easy for our partners—trading partners to slam borders shut,” Ragan said. “It doesn’t matter if it means that there’s a case in California, whatever then in a species sometimes the same species on the other side of the country will also be shut out of the exporting to countries.”
A big basis for that discussion, according to Ragan, is that producers haven’t fully identified animals well enough to ensure that animals from one state haven’t exposed animals in another state by movement across state lines. Even if a producer is not an exporter, what happens in the export markets impacts what happens in the domestic markets as well.
What is it?
Put simply, the animal disease traceability final rule is knowing where diseased or exposed animals are, where they’ve been and when they were at a location. This will help mount a response when a disease even takes place, and it can be contained and eliminated before it has a chance to spread. This is not a food safety rule.
“It’s really to be able to identify animals and trace them for disease purposes,” Ragan said.
The rule puts the administration of the program on state and tribal health officials, and is not a federally run program. The U.S. Department of Agriculture is there to support it, but not run it, Ragan said.
“The other thing about this disease traceability rule is that it really heavily uses a lot of systems that are already in place,” she said. “Such as current interstate certificates of veterinary inspection (health certificates).”
Another important piece of the rule is often misunderstood, Ragan said.
“By having this system in place it actually greatly reduces the number of animal owners that are impacted by a disease investigation,” she said. “It has been a common discussion I think among producers that I have been involved in a number of times that have said, we don’t want our animals identified because that means you’ll be coming to knock on our door more frequently if there is a disease problem, because you’ll know if any of our animals were involved.”
It doesn’t actually quite work that way, Ragan said. When working a disease investigation, three things interest investigators: Where did the disease come from; how did it get in the population, and what management factors allowed it to spread; and where do we go from here?
“Now, disease control and elimination can be very complex also depending upon the disease that you’re dealing with and how quickly it spread,” Ragan said. “In actuality you can break it down to these three critical points that need to be addressed in order to stop a disease spread.”
A system like what the rule provides helps to identify where a disease came from when animals have been properly identified as they move, and also allows those working on the outbreak to know very quickly where did it go as the animals move.
“What management factors allowed it to spread internally within the population is still a key part of an epidemiologic investigation, but obviously not as something the traceability program itself will necessarily address,” Ragan said. “But points one and three are really critical in containing a disease.”
Who is covered?
Cattle, bison, swine, horses and other equine species, sheep and goats, and poultry are all covered under the rule. Cattle and bison may face the biggest impact, Ragan said.
At this point all the sexually intact animals—cattle and bison—18 months of age and older are covered under this rule, and dairy cattle of any age.
“Why the difference? It really has to do with management of the different breeds and the likelihood of them commingling with others,” Ragan said. “Makes the dairy animals of any age covered. In addition, any age cattle or bison, that are moved to rodeos, recreational events, shows or exhibits are also covered under this rule.”
Feeder cattle designations have caused a lot of discussion, and APHIS has commented there is going to be a separate rulemaking in the future to address identification requirements for feeder cattle—those under 18 months of age.
“So if you are involved in the interstate commerce of those types of animals you might want to keep a heads up for rule-making related to traceability and those types of animals,” Ragan said.
Ragan said it’s important to recognize these traceability rules only apply to interstate movement—movement from one state to another. It does not cover intrastate movement.
“(It’s a) big, big difference there from some of the original efforts that were made for animal identification systems,” Ragan said.
Specifics for identification requirements—tags, brands, back tags, use of multiple ID methods and other exemptions can be found in the complete rule at http://www.aphis.usda.gov/newsroom/2012/12/pdf/traceability_final_rule.pdf.
An interstate certificate of veterinary inspection or health certificate documentation must be submitted by an accredited veterinarian to the state of origin within seven calendar days after the certificate is written. The state of origin must submit a copy to the receiving state within seven calendar days after the copy is received.
Another really important piece to be aware of is maintaining records. This means accredited veterinarians, livestock facilities, states of origin, states of destination—all those who were involved in that record that relates to the movement of animals across state lines are required to maintain that record for five years for cattle, bison, equine, sheep, goats and cervids and two years for swine and poultry.
“It’s really important to have these not only maintained, but in some kind of a system where they’re retrievable so that you can use them quickly if there’s a disease incursion or disease investigation of some kind,” Ragan said.
In recent years, many veterinarians have changed from handwriting health certificates, to using electronic versions. As the number of animals being identified increase, so does the volume of records, Ragan expects.
“The electronic copy is where I think it would be the best way to move into maintaining these records especially with the increased volume,” Ragan said. “Not only because of the legibility, but also because of the ability to store these samples where you can view the certificates and retrieve them in case of a disease outbreak situation.”
She said the ability to retrieve and use that information is really the whole reason for doing this in the first place—not to create a whole lot of paperwork for everybody.
“It’s really to be able to have data that’s useful in a disease outbreak situation,” Ragan said.
Using an electronic system allows the certificates to be much more legible, searchable and allows all forms of identification, including brands to be copied into the document.
“Hopefully this will not only help us in diseases of concern that we have for foreign animal diseases that make them, but also our domestic ones,” Ragan said.
Many of the electronic systems allow for the use of multiple, unique identifiers. Ragan said one tag doesn’t just have to be recorded. Digital photos can be used as an electronic identifier—historically veterinarians had to hand-draw animal markings on health certificates.
“When you’ve got a horse with some really strange markings—and if you’re like me—I can’t draw a circle, so for me to draw something like this is a real challenge,” Ragan said. “But historically we’ve had to try and draw those and make them look like those horse that is standing in front of us. Nice thing about the electronic ones is you can just take a digital picture and upload it, and then you don’t have to worry about whether your squiggles and jags are in the right place or not.”
One thing that caught Ragan’s eye with an electronic system is the electronic certification process that meets record submittal requirements.
“Once you commit a health certificate it will immediately send it to both the state of origin and destination,” Ragan said. “So you don’t have to fool with a gathering a whole bunch of them and mailing them at once and make sure you’re staying with in the seven day thing. Its just as soon as you commit it sends it to the states for you and it’s done you don’t have to worry about the records submittal piece.”
Another aspect she really likes is the record retention capability. Certificates are stored electronically—as PDFs or data. The storage and retrievable database helps eliminate piles of paper. Legibility is also improved.
“The other thing is that it’s easy, and this is from my personal perspective—the real beauty of this is its much easier to do trace backs in animal disease situations if you can just immediately pull up information on the animals,” Ragan said. “The dates they moved, where they went to etc., and also you generally have more accurate animal identification completeness of certificates.”
The electronic certificates also have added security, and will be harder to be altered. Electronic systems allow for security features including watermarks, secure electronic signatures that are only able to upload something under a signature that nobody can then change. Unique certificate numbers and originals saved on secure servers so veterinarians can always go back and retrieve an original if one is needed without having to plow through a box of paper.
Kylene Scott can be reached by phone at 620-227-1804 or by email at email@example.com.