THE "cow who stole Christmas" in 2003 when it tested positive for bovine spongiform encephalopathy demonstrated the need for rapid animal traceback.
Now, nine years and thousands of comments later, plus collaboration among the U.S. Department of Agriculture, state agriculture departments and livestock owners, USDA has proposed a national animal identification (ID) system.
Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack noted that the voluntary animal ID system was not successful, but the final rule provides flexible, effective animal disease traceability without undue burdens on America's ranchers and livestock businesses.
Vilsack said the rule's focus was not only to provide flexibility but also maintain the economic vitality of the nation's livestock sector.
"The flexible, coordinated approach embraces the strengths and expertise of states and empowers them to find solutions that work best for them," he said.
Specifically, it doesn't require that every animal be identified but, rather, only those moving interstate.
Under the final rule, which is scheduled to be published in the Dec. 28 Federal Register, unless specifically exempted, livestock moving interstate would have to be officially identified and accompanied by an interstate certificate of veterinary inspection or other documentation, such as owner-shipper statements or brand certificates.
Vilsack explained that the rule provides flexibility for states and tribes to agree upon other forms of ID. Unlike the earlier proposed rule, the final rule accepts movement documentation other than an interstate certificate of veterinary inspection for all ages and classes of cattle when accepted by the shipping and receiving states or tribes.
Vilsack said the program also doesn't require a specific ID tag or format for recordkeeping. The rule also allows for permanently maintaining the use of backtags as an alternative to official eartags for cattle and bison moved directly to slaughter.
National Cattlemen's Beef Assn. chief veterinarian Kathy Simmons applauded the fact that brands will be recognized when accompanied by an official brand inspection certificate as means of official ID for cattle.
"Most important to cattle producers is the secretary's announcement of separate rule-making for beef cattle under 18 months of age," Simmons said.
Unless they are moved interstate for shows, exhibitions, rodeos or recreational events, beef cattle under 18 months of age are exempt from the official ID requirement in the rule. Specific traceability requirements for this group will be addressed in separate rule-making.
The final rule clarifies that all livestock moved interstate to a custom slaughter facility are exempt from the regulations, as are chicks moved interstate from a hatchery.
Representatives from the Livestock Marketing Assn. (LMA) praised USDA's final rule, saying it improves the traceability of U.S. livestock moving interstate.
Seeing a need for cooperation and dialogue, LMA brought together 14 organizations in the livestock industry to form the Cattle ID Group (CIDG).
Nancy Robinson, CIDG coordinator and LMA vice president for government and industry affairs, said the final rule shows that USDA was responsive to CIDG and its member organizations' concerns about the rule-making process.
As implementation of the national program for the adult cattle herd begins in individual states, CIDG and its member organizations said they expect to remain closely involved to ensure that the traceability program remains a viable tool for the industry as well as federal, state and tribe animal health officials.
Dr. Tim Starks, LMA president, said market owners and managers understand the important role they play in helping to control and eliminate economically significant cattle diseases from the nation's livestock herd, pointing to the success in recent years in eradicating diseases such as brucellosis and bringing tuberculosis under control.
The cattle industry's job is not finished with the publication of the animal disease traceability rules.
"We have much to do in overseeing the implementation of the (animal ID) program to ensure that the way we envision the program is not derailed or left to the devices of others less invested in our industry," Starks said. "We will keep working to accomplish the industry and USDA's mutual goals for an effective, efficient and timely animal disease traceability system for the nation's cattle herd."
LMA's regional executive officers have already started working with members and animal health officials in the states they represent to begin the traceability implementation process at their facilities as soon as possible.
Dr. Ron DeHaven, chief executive officer of the American Veterinary Medical Assn. (AVMA), said he is pleased that new safeguards are in place, but AVMA nevertheless continues to support a mandatory national animal disease traceability and ID system that is uniform from state to state.
AVMA said this would more broadly protect the nation's food supply and food animal populations. Such a program, DeHaven said, would be the most effective way to accurately and promptly trace large numbers of animals moving during a broad disease outbreak.
"It is our hope that this will lead to a more comprehensive electronic system that will result in even greater improvements and more rapid animal traceability in the event of a disease outbreak," DeHaven said.