The Obama administration has decided to scrap the national animal identification system and instead will rely on state programs to help authorities quickly identify and track livestock in the event of an animal disease outbreak. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack announced that USDA will develop a new, flexible framework for animal disease traceability in the United States, and undertake several other actions to further strengthen its disease prevention and response capabilities.

After conducting a listening tour on the subject last year, USDA came to the conclusion that a different strategy was needed. "I've decided to revise the prior policy and offer a new approach to animal disease traceability with changes that respond directly to the feedback we heard," said Vilsack.

The altered program announced by Vilsack is intended to: 1) apply only to animals moved in interstate commerce; 2) be administered by the states and tribal nations; 3) encourage the use of lower-cost technology; and 4) be implemented transparently through federal regulations and the full rulemaking process.

One of USDA's first steps will be to convene a forum with animal health leaders for the states and tribal nations "to initiate a dialogue about the possible ways of achieving the flexible, coordinated approach to animal disease traceability we envision," said Vilsack in a statement. Additionally, USDA will be revamping the Secretary's Advisory Committee on Animal Health to address specific issues, such as confidentiality and liability.

Although USDA says it has a robust system in place to protect U.S. agriculture, the department now will be "taking additional actions to further strengthen protections against the entry and spread of disease," according to USDA.

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It was clear that the previous national animal identification system was not working and that the Obama administration now is facing that reality. It is another reminder how difficult it is to get consensus in the livestock industry on any issue.

The ball now is in the court of Congress, particularly those members who earlier threatened to shut off government funding for the NAIS unless more individuals in the livestock supply chain chose to participate. But regardless of the participation level, but the goal of being able to quickly identify and trace livestock in the event of an animal disease outbreak continues.

Some Washington observers conclude that the seeds of the failure were in the initial plans of USDA's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service during the George W. Bush administration. According to a Republican former USDA official, "The failure in the Bush administration was that USDA tried, unsuccessfully, to do a top-down, government-run and costly program. They did not initially communicate and reach out to the industry and farm-state lawmakers to get them to buy-in to the program."

The former official then expressed disbelief that the idea of an animal tracking and tracing system  –– which was conceived following the discovery of mad cow disease in one U.S. cow on Dec. 23, 2003 –– still is not up and running over six years later.