On the road

New Rules for Traveling Livestock

by Constance Breese

New Rules for Traveling Livestock

Jensine Eckwall

Farm animals hit the road more often than one might think. This past January, after deciding his older cows were past their prime, a local farmer brought a whole new herd in from Pennsylvania. Fortunately, these new cows and calves are healthy and robust, but if one or two of them were carrying an illness, they could quickly infect other Vineyard cattle.Knowing where diseased animals are and what other livestock they have been in contact with are important pieces of a new national effort to identify and control the spread of contagious animal infections and food supply contaminations.
This year the Department of Agriculture’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) announced plans to expand the surveillance and tracking of animals when they cross state lines. The concept is being called “livestock traceability” by the government agency because it will enhance the ability to track an animal’s travels and original birthplace. Farmers are being asked to register their farms, permanently identify each animal, and call a veterinarian to perform a health inspection whenever animals are going on a road trip crossing state lines. Accredited veterinarians are the only officials who can sign the newly required health certificates for interstate travel of farm animals.
The main component of the new program is the animal identification number requirement (National Animal Identification System). The ability to single out specific animals is so important due to the limitations inherent in assessing individuals based upon herd health. Herd health is a typically good economic approach for nutrition and housing, but when illness strikes, vets need to know how many animals are sick and if they have been exposed to any other animals. Livestock tracking hinges on having animals with permanent identification tags, brands or microchips. It’s fine to name your herd members, but having permanent identification, such as ear tags, is really the way to go. Plastic or metal ear tags with a unique identification number are put through the flap of the ear like a permanent earring, and state veterinarians will provide ear tags when a farm registers with its local USDA branch.
Conceptually, this program makes a lot of sense, but there are many flaws that can ultimately lead to confusion for veterinarians and farmers. One major shortcoming is that many animals are excluded. For example, poultry can travel without individual identifiers like leg bands. Pigs aren’t considered individuals either; if Vineyard boars are being sold for use as breeders to a Tennessee farm, they are given a group health certificate. A flock of chickens or a group of pigs can include hundreds of animals, raising the question of how viruses like bird and swine flu will be handled. A few years ago, a very similar tracking plan was implemented to eradicate a disease affecting sheep and goats. The voluntary plan gave farmers government ear tags, and if a sick animal was diagnosed, its was easy to track its origin. Because the officials believe the original sheep and goat program worked so well, sheep and goats are excluded from the new program. Most livestock farmers and vets agree that many sheep and goats remain unregistered, and these animals should be included in the APHIS program.
Another weakness in the program is that it allows beef cattle under the age of eighteen months to cross the country without documentation. However, a large percentage of commercial cattle are slaughtered when they are less than two years old. Additional regulations for cattle is necessary, considering that fact that the first version of this program began in 2004 after a cow was diagnosed with Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy, commonly known as Mad Cow Disease. Officials were forced to shut down a number of farms and slaughterhouses and began to work backwards to figure out where this animal had been.
By tracking the movements of livestock traveling across state lines, the government hopes to reduce unnecessary testing and quarantines of livestock when an animal health problem is identified. One sick animal can trigger a huge cascade of events that can slow the availability of meat products and decrease the credibility of American meat overseas. Though this new program has a number of flaws, once the United States has a national surveillance and tracking program, sick animals can be vetted and animal products will be viewed as safer.