September 7, 2007 - 1:26pm
Following the first discovery of BSE in an imported cow in the U.S., increased attention has been focused on monitoring and maintaining animal health, including the development of an animal identification program. USDA is currently implementing a voluntary National Animal Identification System (NAIS).
Under the proposed system, farms, ranches, feedlots, sale barns and packing plants will receive “premises” identification numbers. Premises registration is the first step in the NAIS, and it is available to livestock producers and handlers in all states. The second step is to assign individual animals (or groups/lots of livestock that move together throughout their lives) a unique, standardized animal identification number (AIN). The system envisions that participating animals will be identified at the point they first enter commerce. In the third phase of the NAIS, animal movement will be tracked by linking individual animal numbers with the dates they are held at a given premises.
Cooperation with state animal health officials is a major component of the program. States have responsibility for the definition of and requirements for a premises and assigning premises identification numbers. In addition, states will be responsible for tracking all intrastate animal movement.
Implementation of an animal ID system is an enormous task. The U.S. has 95 million cattle and calves owned by more than 1 million cow and calf producers. There are also 60 million hogs, 6 million sheep and lambs, and more than 700 million chickens and turkeys in the U.S. Many issues related to a national animal ID program are still unresolved.
AFBF remains concerned about three major issues that will affect the success of this voluntary program:
Cost: How much will animal identification cost and who will pay the price?
The price tag for a national ID system could run as high as $100 million annually. The fiscal year 2007 agriculture budget provides $33 million to fund activities for system development, a level of funding insufficient to obtain satisfactory producer participation in a voluntary program. Producers cannot and should not bear an unfair share of the costs of establishing or maintaining an animal ID system. Implementation of a successful ID program depends on adequate and equitable funding.
Confidentiality: Who has access to the data used in the NAIS, and how can producers be assured protection from unintended use of the data they submit?
Legislation will be needed to ensure the privacy of producers’ information submitted to the NAIS because producers must be protected from public disclosure under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). Otherwise, competitors or activist groups could exploit proprietary information. Furthermore, there must be clarity on which state and federal agencies will have access to the data.
Liability: Are producers appropriately protected from the consequences of the actions of others, after their animals are no longer in their control?
Many producers worry they might be forced to share liability for food safety problems that are now limited to meat merchandisers. In order to prevent this scenario from occurring, Congress should pass legislation defining the duty of care required of a livestock producer as “ordinary care.” The legislation should provide a “rebuttable presumption” meaning that if livestock owners meet the standard of ordinary care, they would not be liable for food safety problems. By using a rebuttable presumption, a plaintiff in a lawsuit would have to provide credible evidence that the livestock producer did not comply with the duty of ordinary care in order to establish liability. As a result, producers would have a layer of protection – but not immunity – from litigation if their product, according to federal or state inspection processes, was wholesome, sound, unadulterated and fit for human consumption.
The Animal Health Protection Act (included in the 2002 Farm Bill) gives USDA authority to establish and implement either a voluntary or mandatory animal identification program to track interstate movement of livestock for animal health purposes. Most states have or are developing laws providing similar authorization for livestock tracking within their states.
We support the establishment and implementation of a voluntary national animal identification system capable of providing support for animal disease control and eradication. Only non-profit agricultural or meat/livestock organizations should have control of the animal ID program. Private “for profit” companies should not control the program. Cost-sharing support from the federal government is important for development and implementation. The identification of animals should not be required until the animal is moved from the original registered premise.
Producer information should be confidential and exempt from the Freedom of Information Act.