Eartags on adult cattle moving across states lines would have to be both visually and electronically readable under a proposal issued by the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service Wednesday.

The proposed changes to animal disease traceability regulations also would require official records be entered into a tribal, state or federal database and available to APHIS.

In a release, APHIS said “rapid traceability in a disease outbreak could help ranchers and farmers get back to selling their products more quickly; limit how long farms are quarantined; and keep more animals from getting sick.

APHIS first issued animal disease traceability regulations in January 2013, 10 years after the first domestic case of bovine spongiform encephalopathy in Washington state forced the cattle industry to evaluate how it could improve its ability to keep track of cattle. APHIS began to hold stakeholder meetings including state officers and APHIS veterinarians in 2017 to identify what worked well in the first implementation of the traceability program and what gaps remained.

The agency said a key gap identified through the 2017 stakeholder process was the need to more efficiently collect the ID numbers of individual animals at slaughter and remove them from future tracing efforts. “Eliminating this gap was determined not to be feasible with visual-only eartags but could be achieved at a future time with [Electronic identification] eartags,” the latest notice said.

Cattle groups have differed on the need for EIDs.

In a statement to Agri-Pulse, Todd Wilkinson, National Cattlemen’s Beef Association President-elect and South Dakota producer, said NCBA has been engaged with the agency throughout the process. “It is critical that any program ultimately adopted by USDA allows for maximum flexibility and privacy,” he said. “At the same time, USDA must also minimize the costs for producers and any business disruptions to the industry.”

The proposed change would impact approximately 11% of the national population of 100 million cattle and bison that used non-electronic ID eartags on average in the last five years, according to the proposed changes. However, Bill Bullard, CEO of the cattle group R-CALF USA, told Agri-Pulse he believes USDA underestimated the cost estimates and number of animals impacted.

Bullard said the agency previously estimated about 30 million cattle would be impacted by the 2013 final rule. He was not aware of how the agency lowered its estimates, which would also impact the total cost of implementing the changes.

“Previous cost estimates were in the billions," Bullard said. "Now they claim it's around $35 million."

The proposal estimates the "total average annual cost of purchasing approximately 11 million EID tags, instead of the non-EID tags" at $26.1 million annually, or $30.45 per "cattle or bison operation." 

APHIS has used non-EID metal tags for animal identification in disease programs for many decades and has approved both non-EID and radio frequency identification (RFID) tags for use as official eartags in cattle and bison since 2008. However, the agency said working with industry stakeholders to transition to electronic identification and records could prove valuable in advancing animal health goals.

“Disease investigations that involve tracing an animal with electronic records take only minutes to hours, while searching paper records for a visual eartag number can take days to weeks or longer," the proposed rule says. "Shorter disease investigations minimize the impact on individual producers, herds, businesses and communities.”

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In the courts, R-CALF has challenged USDA’s actions to move towards electronic eartag mandates. “Our initial review does not change our position that once the government mandates this form of technology, all the producers who are voluntarily using this technology will soon see their financial premiums evaporate,” Bullard said.

In addition, Bullard said APHIS initially insisted that a driving force behind the move to electronic tags was to expand markets that want cattle to be electronically traceable. “The proposed rule is ominously silent on this principal reason for the rule,” he said.

Wilkinson noted that foot-and-mouth disease outbreaks across the globe continue to result in disruptions to commerce and depopulation of livestock. “The need for bold action is immediate and evident,” he said, adding that NCBA is committed to working with USDA to ensure “workable solutions are identified and ultimately implemented.”

Chelsea Good, vice president of government and industry affairs for the Livestock Marketing Association, said in a statement to Agri-Pulse livestock auctions play an integral role in livestock identification and is evaluating the proposed rule.

“As USDA looks to transition to electronic identification, LMA will be focused on making sure the agency is willing to invest in the tools for this to be done correctly – both in providing tags for producers as well as readers and other needed infrastructure,” Good said.  

The comment period opens Jan. 19 and runs until March 22.

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