Vilsack open to mandatory livestock traceback

WASHINGTON (Reuters) The United States may need to consider mandatory farmer participation in a livestock traceback system, but insight must first be gathered from opponents of the idea, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said on Friday.

“There is very serious dissatisfaction with the current system” among lawmakers who are convinced the voluntary process is not working as well as it should be, Vilsack said in an interview with Reuters.

“What I’m hoping to do is get a system, whether it’s voluntary or mandatory ... that works,” he said.

“It may very well be that you need a mandatory system, but in order for it to work you have to have people understand why you are doing it and understand that they have the opportunity to have their concerns voiced and listened to.”

Ultimately, he said whatever path livestock tracking takes, it must protect the country from market disruptions and homeland security threats. It also must be supported by a majority of the people who are willing to comply with the system rather than find a way around it.

The current national animal identification program is intended to track the home farm and herdmates of sick animals within 48 hours of an animal disease outbreak. Farmers are not obliged to participate in the program, which was embraced by USDA after the discovery of the first U.S. case of mad cow disease in 2003.

Some lawmakers have questioned the effectiveness of the program, which has consumed $128 million over five years to create a voluntary system.

House Agriculture Committee Chairman Collin Peterson said earlier this month he supported a mandatory system as a way to avoid devastating losses from virulent diseases.

Cattle groups have been cool to USDA’s traceback plan. They fear high costs for equipment to carry out the system, question whether USDA can keep the information confidential and worry about their cattle intermingling on public lands.

The National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, which supports a voluntary program, met with Vilsack earlier on Friday.

He “assured us that the (traceback system) must be workable for ranchers,” said NCBA President-elect Steve Foglesong.

“We understand the need for an animal identification plan that is an effective disease surveillance and monitoring tool, but it must also serve the needs of our livestock producers on public and private lands.”

Vilsack said USDA would meet with groups concerned about a mandatory system to register their concerns and work toward developing a system they would be more willing to embrace.

“I’m hopeful that we can bring people in and lay out on the table what are your concerns about a mandatory system,” said Vilsack, a former Iowa governor. “Let’s work through them and see if we can get to a point where we can then fashion a mandatory system that would do the job and would work.”

About 35 percent of livestock producers have registered their premises under the voluntary program. Relatively few livestock markets or slaughterhouses are enrolled.

Reporting by Christopher Doering; Editing by David Gregorio