Livestock traceback participation disappoints -USDA

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A disappointing one-third of cattle, hog and poultry farmers are enrolled in a livestock traceback system intended as a primary U.S. defense against mad cow and other diseases, an Agriculture Department official said on Tuesday.

To be effective, participation must be at least 70 percent, said USDA chief veterinarian John Clifford. He said low participation could hamper disease control and make it harder to restore sales to nations who ban U.S. meat.

“Unfortunately, a disappointing rate of producer participation -- currently only 35 percent -- hampers our ability to achieve animal traceability outbreak,” he told a joint hearing of House Agriculture and Homeland Security subcommittees.

The goal of the voluntary identification program is to locate the home farm and herdmates of sick animals within 48 hours of an disease outbreak. About 510,000 premises have been registered out of 1.4 million premises the USDA wants to sign up.

The government embraced a voluntary tracking system as a response to the first U.S. case of mad cow disease in December 2003. Critics, including some members of Congress, say the program, which has cost $130 million, is not working. Many have called for a mandatory system and hinted they may withhold funding until it is put in place.

“While 70 percent would provide some measure of traceability, I must emphasize that we really need to achieve higher participation rates, as high as 90 percent, to ensure the benefits of the system,” said Clifford.

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack met with meat industry leaders last month and vowed to move aggressively to improve the livestock tracking system which he said “does not provide the level of protection for the market and animal health that is important.”

USDA will tour the country over the next several months to help it answer questions such as whether traceback should be mandatory or voluntary, who should control the data and who should pay for the program.

A group representing U.S. hog farmers on Tuesday asked USDA to buy $50 million in pork products to offset low prices that resulted from H1N1 swine flu and export restrictions on U.S. pork.

It also endorsed “a comprehensive surveillance program for swine diseases.”

“Mandatory premises and animal identification would be necessary for an effective surveillance program,” the National Pork Producers Council said.

A study, written by university researchers and released last week by the USDA, said the U.S. beef industry could lose $13.2 billion a year in market access overseas if a more robust livestock tracking system is not adopted. International markets expect exporters to have animal identification and tracking systems.

It estimated the total cost to implement the tracking system in the cattle sector would be about $176 million per year, assuming 90 percent of the industry was participating.

The cattle industry represents about 92 percent of the total cost of the system because it has the highest infrastructure demands, such as for tagging.

Reporting by Christopher Doering; Editing by Marguerita Choy