By Alan Bjerga – Oct 21, 2011
Arizona rancher Jay Platt says when 200 of his calves were stolen by rustlers, the brand on their flanks helped Texas Rangers track them down two states away.
The third-generation rancher says the hot-iron brand — an inverted V flanked by a diagonal line — meets his needs better than a proposed national animal-identification system. The U.S. says a program using ear tags is essential to protect herds from disease, maintain confidence food is safe and avert bans by other nations on U.S. meat exports.
A rustler can snip off an ear tag, Platt says. A brand is forever.
“Ranchers out here protect the health of our herds, but theft is a big problem,” Platt, 61, who raises about 1,000 head of cattle on more than 100,000 acres straddling Arizona and New Mexico, said in an interview. “A lot of diseases spread very fast, and an animal ID system won’t stop that.”
Such rancher resistance is among reasons a nationwide animal-tracing system has yet to take effect for the U.S. livestock industry, valued at more than $70 billion a year. It’s been promised by the Department of Agriculture since 2003, when the U.S. found its first case of mad-cow disease, which may lead to dementia in people who eat contaminated meat.
A major disease outbreak in the absence of such a system to speed investigations may cost the beef industry $12.6 billion and pork producers $5.5 billion in lost exports over 10 years, according to a study this year by researchers from Kansas State University, Colorado State University and Montana State University for the Denver-based U.S. Meat Export Federation.
A voluntary plan was abandoned in 2010 after ranchers refused to participate, citing cost and concerns that its proposed registry would give competitors proprietary information. The voluntary system was criticized as taking a one-size-fits-all approach that didn’t take into account how different animals are marketed: While horses are often sold individually, chickens could be tracked by groups because they travel in flocks.
Lawmakers such as Representative Rosa DeLauro, a Democrat from Connecticut, and the USDA say a better tracing system is needed to limit outbreaks that could devastate herds, destroy exports and in some cases threaten human health. Ranchers say illnesses such as mad cow disease and bovine tuberculosis are rare in U.S. herds.
The plan the USDA proposed in August would require registration and tagging of livestock moved between states, with guidelines tailored to different species. It would be put in place gradually, applying first to older animals in the U.S. cattle herd, which numbered 92.6 million at the start of the year.
Livestock branding, which dates to ancient Egypt, is part of the lore of the American West, where the indelible symbol indicated ownership as long-horned herds were driven across the fenceless prairie.
Ranchers still lose cattle to rustlers, as well as to ineffective barbed-wire fences that fail to restrain the animals, and potentially to diseases that spread among herds. So brands are still useful as a way to track livestock to their owners and remain a legally recognized ID in 14 states.
The USDA, which has extended a Nov. 9 deadline for comments on its plan by a month, says its goal is to help investigators track a sick animal to its place of origin more quickly. Earlier proposals set a target of finding the source in 48 hours. In some cases of bovine tuberculosis, tracing has taken 150 days.
“It’s about making sure producers are able to know as quickly as possible if there’s a problem, where their problem starts and being able to mitigate it,” Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack told reporters in September. He described the proposed system as aimed primarily at animal health and said in the end that will benefit producers.
Of the world’s eight biggest beef exporters, only the U.S. and India don’t have mandatory national ID and tracing systems, the researchers for the U.S. Meat Export Federation said.
The USDA said the annual cost for the cattle industry to implement its latest plan would be no more than $34.3 million, a fraction of the $4.08 billion in beef shipped overseas last year. The expense for producers of other livestock would be much less, according to the proposal.
Animal tracing efforts date back decades at the USDA, which spent the 20th century fighting maladies such as animal tuberculosis, brucellosis, foot-and-mouth disease and hog cholera that can wipe out herds, driving up meat prices and posing a threat to people who handle the animals. Efforts then, as now, tended to focus on cattle.
Mad Cow Disease
An outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease in South Korea resulted in the slaughter of more than 3 million animals in the past year. The U.S. hasn’t had a case since 1929. While the U.K. had an outbreak of mad cow disease in the 1990s and Canada has had more than a dozen cases in the past decade, the U.S. has had only three, one of them in a cow born in Canada.
Mad cow disease, or bovine spongiform encephalopathy, is associated with Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, a form of brain damage that leads to rapid dementia in humans. In 1993, during the peak of the U.K. outbreak, more than 1,000 cows a week were being diagnosed as infected. The incidence has decreased rapidly since the 1990s as bans on practices that promote the disease proved effective.
Cattle futures plummeted 22 percent in the week after the U.S. found the initial mad cow, and beef exports didn’t top 2003 levels again until last year.
Japan, the biggest buyer of American beef before the 2003 outbreak, restricts U.S. imports to cattle 20 months or younger on concern that older animals may be at higher risk for the brain-wasting disease.
Japan’s government is considering raising the age limit to 30 months after domestic production fell in the aftermath of the March 11 disaster at the Fukushima Dai-Ichi nuclear plant, according to two ministry officials who declined to be named because of department policies.
Tyson Foods Inc. (TSN), the largest U.S. beef processor, backs a robust national animal ID program, spokesman Gary Mickelson said in an e-mail. Cargill Inc., the world’s largest agribusiness, said it supports a plan that creates different rules among species to lower costs while maintaining traceability, a feature of the USDA proposal.
A nationwide tracing system should be possible, as long as the USDA cooperates with producers, House Agriculture Committee Chairman Frank Lucas, an Oklahoma Republican, said last month. “Traceability policy has always been about weighing costs and benefits,” he said in an e-mail.
Elizabeth Parker, chief veterinarian for the Denver-based National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, the largest U.S. rancher group, said the USDA’s plan appears more palatable than the voluntary proposal, which she called a “colossal failure.”
Extra labor and other costs will fall disproportionately on smaller cattle producers, according to Bill Bullard, the chief executive officer of R-CALF USA, a rancher group based in Billings, Montana. Errors in processing could result in herd miscounts and legal-liability issues in case of a disease outbreak, rancher Platt said.
“We’re on the right track,” T. Wright Dickinson, of Maybell, Colorado, whose iron-branded cattle roam across parts of Wyoming and Utah, said in an interview. “But it has to work for all parties.”