WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. government should require livestock producers to enroll in a traceback system, a primary U.S. defense against mad cow disease, because voluntary signups are not working, two key congressmen said on Wednesday.
The chief veterinarian at the Agriculture Department said at a House Agriculture subcommittee hearing “it is time to reassess our strategy.” He declined to say if USDA would endorse a mandatory program.
The goal of the traceback system is to identify within 48 hours of the outbreak of livestock disease the home farm of the infected animals and other livestock exposed to them. USDA adopted traceback as an animal health tool within days of the discovery of the first U.S. case of mad cow disease in late 2003.
Some $128 million has been spent over five years to create a voluntary system. About 35 percent of livestock producers have registered their premises. Relatively few livestock markets or slaughterhouses are enrolled.
Subcommittee chairman David Scott, Georgia Democrat, said a mandatory system appeared to be the only way to assemble a reliable system. Minnesota Democrat Collin Peterson, chairman of the full committee, said he supported a mandatory system as a way to avoid devastating losses from virulent diseases.
“I will do everything I can to make sure government doesn’t bail you out,” Peterson told opponents, if there is an epidemic and no traceback system is in place.
Private consultant Jay Truitt said the hearing was an opportunity for USDA and lawmakers to signal their support for a mandatory system.
Texas Republican Randy Neugebauer said USDA has the power on its own to demand enrollment.
“I’m not saying who (Congress or USDA) should take the lead or not,” replied USDA chief veterinarian John Clifford when another lawmaker asked about moving to a mandatory system.
If participation becomes mandatory, it would take an three or four years to get a working “book end” system in place and at a cost of $160 million to $190 million, Clifford said. A book-end system would compile data on where and when a food animal was born and its location when it died.
“The current system is not working,” he said before listing two routes to high enrollment — mandatory participation or incentives for enrollment, such as “up-front resources” from the private sector such as sales premiums for livestock with low-fat meat. Those payments have been slow to arise.
Cattle groups have been cool to USDA’s traceback plan. They fear high costs for equipment to carry out the system and they question if USDA can keep the information confidential. Information on crop subsidy payments is easily found on the Internet.
A spending bill passed by the Senate on Tuesday includes $14.5 million for the traceback system this fiscal year. In an accompanying statement, Congress says USDA “is expected to make demonstrable progress” in building the traceback system.
Reporting by Charles Abbott; Editing by Marguerita Choy