Thank the Canadian cattle producers. If they wouldn't have pushed for a national cattle identification (ID) system in that country — mandatory ID became law there in 2001 — there's no telling how long it would have taken to track the origins of the Washington cow found infected with bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) the day before Christmas Eve.

Fact is, the infected cow is older than the Canadian ID system. It was a metal clip tag in her ear — similar to those used in the U.S. brucellosis eradication program — that got the ball rolling. But two years' worth of national enrollment helped trace her herd mates and progeny quickly.

South of the border, it's another story. Valerie Ragan, assistant deputy administrator for veterinary services in USDA's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, says within the nation's long-standing voluntary ID system it could take days, to weeks, to months in extreme cases to track a diseased animal and all of the others exposed to it.

“It depends on the type of disease and how far back we need to look, and the information available,” Ragan says. She explains the longer the incubation period of the disease in question, the more extensive the search.

Not surprisingly, USDA is stepping up the push for national ID. While not in complete agreement about the details of implementation, for the sake of disease surveillance and rapid traceability, many of this nation's leading producer groups have been lobbying for such a program.

“The intent is to put a national animal ID program in place as quickly as possible, but to be deliberate and thoughtful in doing so,” Ragan says. “We want a system that allows 48-hour traceback, but we're aware of the need to make it easy for producers to implement.”

According to Ragan, USDA is currently evaluating the potential of implementing — whole or in part — a national ID plan that has been under development via an industry/government collaboration for the past several years. USDA and industry representatives submitted a draft of the plan to the U.S. Animal Health Association (USAHA) in October. That group approved this U.S. Animal Identification Plan (USAIP) as a work in progress. Since that time, species-specific groups have been evaluating it (www.usaip.info) and drafting details for implementation.

“I encourage all producers to review the plan and offer comments,” Ragan says. While USDA has been a partner in developing USAIP, Ragan says USDA recognizes the need for a national system driven by producers.

Make It Or Take It

“The industry had decided if it didn't do something on its own, something would be imposed on them,” says Julie Stitt, general manager of the Canadian Cattle Identification Agency (CCIA). She's describing the impetus that drove Canadian producers to not only push through the ID system they wanted, but fund it themselves.

“Producers didn't want government to fund it,” Stitt says. “They wanted it to be producer-driven, but with government involved so that the system would be recognized by other countries.”

When the government calls for an enhancement that doesn't exist, they pay for it, Stitt says. Otherwise, producers foot the bill. And, it's reasonable, she adds.

Stitt says producers merely replaced the tags they'd been using with official bar-coded CCIA ones, at a similar or lower cost. The producers who saw a difference were those not tagging to begin with.

Overall, Stitt says the Canadians built their entire system for $4 million (CAN) and maintain it for a few cents per ID number. Even when producers make the transition to radio-frequency ID tags by January of next year, which is their goal, she says it shouldn't be a cost burden or imposition on producers.

In Canada, Ragan says, “Funding is the major discussion of the day. It's not resolved, but there is significant interest (government) to find the funds to begin.”

In the U.S., the USAIP calls for implementing a premise ID system first. Producers would be issued premise ID numbers from animal health officials in their respective states. Individual animal ID comes after the premise ID system is in place.

Keep in mind, Canadian producers weren't happy about accepting a mandatory system (so far, USDA is still shying away from the word, but every indication is it must be), but for different reasons than the ones most often used in the U.S. by opponents.

Stitt says producers and their fellow countrymen were already ruffled over a mandatory national gun registry law that had recently gone into effect in Canada. Besides the philosophical differences, that program ended up being a black hole of lost money. Thus, producers were leery the new ID system would wind up in the same straits.

“Neither cost nor liability were major issues here,” Stitt says. “Producers here stepped up and said if another producer was doing something wrong, they wanted that producer to be held accountable. I've noticed a much higher level of legal paranoia in the U.S. about liability.”