On one hand, the U.S. House of Representatives passes a bill (HR 2749) that would enable federal authorities to trace a food item back to its origin within two business days.  On the other hand, a House committee slashes funding for a national animal-identification system to zero

Both of these events occurred this summer.

So, will we have a national animal-ID system or not?

Of the eight speakers who led off the ID Info Expo 2009 on Tuesday, only one gave a clear indication of where things are headed.

“The Obama Administration wants to make capital out of protecting the food supply,” said David Acheson, formerly of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration who now serves as managing director of food and import safety practice at Leavitt Partners in Utah.

He said the FDA under Obama will step up food-safety enforcement efforts, and there will probably be some requirement for food traceability.

Various food-safety scares during the past two or three years have provided the impetus for this. Last year, 1,442 people became infected with Salmonella saintpaul. Initial reports came in during the month of April and it took until the end of July for authorities to trace the contamination to a farm in Mexico that grew jalapeño peppers. (HR 2749, passed by the U.S. House of Representatives in July, would require that situations like that be resolved much quicker.)

What does this mean for the livestock industry?

Gene Hugoson, commissioner of the Minnesota Department of Agriculture, said part of the problem in getting a national animal-identification system established is that “we haven’t been clear (to our constituents) why we need it.”

“It needs to be focused on animal health,” he said, and people also need to understand the economic impact. It’s like having an insurance policy against a catastrophic health event, he added. If a problem occurs, it will allow authorities to isolate where the problem is and keep other, uninfected herds from being sacrificed. 

Douglas Meckes, acting director of food, agriculture and veterinary defense for the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, agreed that one of the main reasons for having a national animal-ID system is to mitigate damage in the case of a major disease event. He, too, mentioned the Salmonella saintpaul case last year where the initial investigation indicated that people were getting sick from tomatoes (although the problem was later traced to jalapeño peppers.) He said tomato growers in the southeastern U.S. weren’t able to sell $147 million worth of tomatoes because of reduced consumer demand due to the salmonella scare.

None of the speakers tackled the tricky political question of whether you make an animal-ID program mandatory for all livestock producers.

Acheson pointed out, however, that in order for the system to work, it needs buy-in from everyone in the food industry. If only a part of the industry participates, “it’s not going to work,” he said.

Under the Bush Admininstration, Secretary of Agriculture Mike Johanns was adamantly opposed to mandatory animal ID.

I have been to many animal-ID meetings over the years and listened to a lot of speakers. The one who energized me the most (as to the need for a national animal-ID system) was Bob Hillman, executive director of the Texas Animal Health Commission. In October 2005, he talked about having to deal with the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina and trying to pair misplaced cattle with their rightful owners. He also said Texas had had five different foreign animal diseases since 1999. Obviously, he had been on the firing line. “We cannot continue to debate the issue,” he said. “We need the animal-ID system, and we need it now.” Well, almost four years later, we are still debating it. Things will just continue to meander along until a really major foreign-animal- disease threat wakes everyone up.  Or, the folks in Washington start looking for new things to regulate.  It’s too bad, because it shouldn’t come across as a regulatory measure, but rather something we, as an industry, did proactively to minimize future animal-health problems and maintain consumer confidence. — Tom Quaife, editor