There are three primary reasons for disease traceability. First, human health is of primary importance. Livestock production exists because consumers buy meat products in food service and retail. A lack of trust in consumer food safety will dramatically decrease the demand for meat products financially hurting producers. Second, international trade is contingent on the U.S. being disease free.
In other words, if the U.S. wants to participate in international trade, we must demonstrate to other countries that livestock raised and harvested do not contain disease. This containment process is being used in the U.S. to prevent diseases from other countries entering our supply chain. For example, foot-and-mouth disease (FMD) in Brazil led to trade restrictions between the U.S. and Brazil where the U.S. only allowed certain products from disease-free zones in Brazil. Third, prompt containment of disease outbreaks is critical to protect the health and wellbeing of livestock.
How does traceability work?
It is first important to note that traceability is not disease prevention but rather rapid disease containment. The most basic form of traceability has three primary functions: identify index case; traceback; and trace forward. Tracing backwards tells us where the disease came from and more importantly tracing forward tells us where the disease went. Combined, these help identify the index case(s) leading to containment of disease and treatment of animals.
Disease traceability in cattle is based on a collection of tools and documents. These tools include certificates of veterinary inspection (handwritten and electronic), program disease records (i.e., vaccination and testing forms), and point-of-sales (market records and brand inspection).
The issue with current traceability efforts is that it is been historically dependent on metal ear tags which are prone to recording and transcription errors. Traceability is further complicated by the lack of compliance from producers who fail to report actual movement of cattle, particularly across state lines. Combined, this has led to a very slow response time in cattle disease traceability.
For example, in a recent outbreak of tuberculosis in South Dakota that involved many herds across 12 states, it required government officials 10 months to trace the disease back the original herd. While this is a slow response, it was aided by tuberculosis being a slow-moving disease. Had this been a disease with a shorter incubation period, the disease would have been widespread long before the investigation was started.
The USDA animal disease traceability program has four primary goals:
• To advance electronic sharing of data among federal and state animal health officials, veterinarians, and industry which includes the sharing of basic animal disease traceability data with the federal animal health events repository;
• Use of electronic identification tags for animals requiring individual identification in order to make the transmission of data more efficient;
• Enhance the ability to track animals from birth to slaughter through a system that allows tracing data points to be connected; and
• Elevate the discussion with states and industry to work toward a system where animal health certificates are electronically transmitted from private veterinarians to state animal health officials.
In other words, the primary goal is to create a system to catch up to a disease outbreak quickly that limits the damage to both the domestic and international flow of commerce.
Traceability systems function to meet a stated objective. One of these functions for live animal traceability systems is to quickly identify agricultural premises exposed to an animal disease so that the disease can be more effectively controlled or eradicated.
Other objectives include supply chain management and marketing of credence attributes, which refers to an attribute that cannot be easily verified by the consumer (e.g., VAC-45 claim). This is often misunderstood as some view having a nationally significant traceability system as the objective. It is unlikely that the cattle industry will realize a national significant traceability system unless there is consensus among those in the beef industry on traceability objectives and for what purpose it will be used.
A challenge with developing a cattle traceability system is the complexity of the beef supply chain. From birth to slaughter, cattle could change ownership several times, commingle, and travel long distances. It is easy to see how this makes cattle traceability more difficult. Designing a cattle traceability system requires understanding the benefits and costs of participating producers in each industry segment.
Participation costs vary across sectors of the industry, and the large costs are realized by cow-calf producers. Research by James Mitchell, Glynn Tonsor, and Lee Schulz shows that the ability of cattle to garner premiums for traceability provides an additional benefit to participating cattle operations. These premiums would not exist if traceability were mandatory.
Adoption of technologies, specifically electronic identification devices (EID) that would facilitate traceability, is currently limited but varies by species and along the supply chain. Cattle producers are more likely to use animal traceability compatible technologies in feedlot operations compared to cow-calf operations.
Currently, 2.9 percent of cow-calf operations in the U.S. use electronic ear tags to monitor and record livestock information. Of the cattle that feedlots receive, larger feedlots are more likely to receive cattle that already have an EID tag. A total of 83 percent of feedlots with greater than 8,000 one-time head capacity receive cattle with an EID tag, compared to 36 percent of 1-499-head capacity feedlots.
Regardless of EID tag use before entering feedlots, 45 percent of feedlots manage cattle with an individual animal identification record and 85.5 percent manage cattle with a group owner identification. The primary difference between these two management methods is the information detail that is available to producers. Individual identification is a more detailed version of group-ID that would allow for producers to record animal health information if/when it occurs. — Elliot Dennis, Nebraska Extension livestock marketing risk management specialist; James Mitchell, assistant professor of livestock marketing, University of Arkansas; and Brian Vander Ley, DVM, epidemiologist, Great Plains Veterinary Education Center