Posted: Thursday, January 13, 2011 11:00 AM
Livestock operators large and small probably felt a twinge of deja vu recently when the USDA announced that it was reconstituting its advisory committee for foreign animal and poultry diseases to take on animal health.
Among the topics the new committee will address are animal disease traceability and emergency response.
This comes less than a year after Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack abandoned the USDA's mandatory National Animal Identification System, which was a public relations disaster.
"While the program achieved progress, it met with significant opposition from many sectors of the industry," according to a report USDA gave to Congress last fall. "Many American producers were concerned that NAIS was too intrusive."
Bingo. Combined with its ham-handed approach toward coaxing, cajoling and shoving ranchers and others into registering, NAIS was doomed to failure.
To his credit, Vilsack recognized NAIS as a boondoggle and decided to replace it with a kinder, gentler setup. USDA representatives met with ranchers around the nation and came up with a plan.
The new animal identification system they came up with has promise. Instead of inventing a whole new labyrinthian scheme for tracking animals, the new plan relies on the systems states and Indian tribes already have. In addition, only livestock shipped across state lines will be tracked.
Assuming Congress can appropriate an adequate amount of money to allow the states to get the new system in gear, most livestock owners seem to approve of it.
Compared to NAIS, this looks good. It accomplishes much of what the old program did and does it without wholesale intrusions.
However, the USDA wants to do more, and therein may lie the potential for problems.
According to the USDA report, nearly 40 percent of the estimated 1.4 million farms, ranches and other facilities in the United States with livestock are registered.
The question arises: How hard does USDA want to push to register the remainder?
That was the main downfall of NAIS. Many livestock operators, particularly those who buy and sell cattle across state lines, see the need to maintain a high level of traceability. In the event of a disease outbreak, time is of the essence.
The problem arose when USDA tried to force every farm with two goats, a cow and three chickens to register. Moreover, it wanted to know if any animal was moved anywhere, creating a Big Brother system.
If there was such a thing as a point of diminishing returns, NAIS had achieved it -- and in the process set off many livestock owners like a skyrocket.
It is our hope that the new advisory committee on animal health can help USDA leaders avoid all of that and convince them to stay on track. It should focus its identification efforts on interstate movement of livestock and avoid pestering other animal owners.
If the committee accomplishes nothing else, that would be plenty.