A national livestock identification program is needed in this country — and the sooner the better.

One need only look at the Oct. 10 headlines from Brazil, reporting a foot-and-mouth disease (FMD) outbreak, to realize how quickly the meat export tide can turn. Within two weeks, 30 countries had closed their doors to Brazilian beef. The country's agriculture department estimates that losses could mount to $1.5 billion.

We all know the financial impact the cases of bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) have had on U.S. and Canadian beef exports.

And, avian influenza is front-page news almost daily. Recent reports confirm the virus' appearance in Eastern Europe. Consumers have responded by buying less chicken.

I'm sure I'm not alone in the lingering thought that someday FMD, African Swine Fever, hog cholera or another dreaded disease could sneak across our borders. Prevention is always best, but should an outbreak occur, the key is to respond quickly and effectively. To do so, we must be able to track where any disease vector has been.

One of the firewalls under construction is the National Animal Identification System (NAIS). The USDA has set a goal of establishing a fully functional animal identification (ID) system by 2008, which will enable the traceback of any animal to the farm of origin within 48 hours.

Another USDA stated goal: “Animal movement data should be maintained in a private system that can be readily accessed when necessary by state and federal animal health authorities.”

USDA's proposal of a “private system” has drawn concern from the pork industry.

Seventeen years ago, the USDA established premises identification as part of the mandatory Pseudorabies Eradication Program. The goal was to contain the virus first, then eliminate all infected animals. It worked. All states are currently in the final stage (Stage 5) of the eradication program. No cases have been found in the last 12 months. With any luck, that will hold for another year, and the U.S. pork industry will be declared pseudorabies-free.

As NPPC President Joy Philippi aptly points out, this program is “proven and effective,” and it was “developed, implemented and accepted by pork producers, and federal and state partners” in a unified effort to rid the industry of the dread disease. The cost of establishing premise ID has already been absorbed into our production systems, and there's no reason to reinvent — or reinvest in — this particular wheel.

As the Pork Industry Identification Working Group notes, modern production systems document all pig movements by group or lot from birth to market. From these records, USDA can trace most pig movement.

Only a small fraction of hogs will require individual identification. Breeding animals, show pigs and boar semen are the exceptions. Breeding animals or show pig identification can best be accomplished, in my opinion, with radio frequency identification (RFID) tags. A minimal investment in tags and portable, hand-held data recorders will simplify this challenge.

More information on the Working Groups' recommendations for swine ID is available at: http://usaip.info/swineplan.htm.

Take the First Step

The first step in the national ID initiative has been to encourage producers to register each premise that houses livestock. The key word here is “each.” It includes your isolation barn down the road as well as Grandpa's old dairy barn where the kids keep their 4-H pigs.

Premises with livestock are estimated at around 1.5 million, not including feedyards, auction barns or county and state fairgrounds, where thousands of animals are commingled every year.

Just 10% of all livestock premises were registered by mid-September. For more information and to register with your state, go to http://animalid.aphis.usda.gov/nais/index.shtml.

Take Care of the Kids

Although the level of recordkeeping by the seedstock and commercial pork sectors is generally on par with the industry's proposals, I am concerned about our ability to keep track of the project pigs enrolled in 4-H and FFA programs.

I encourage seedstock and commercial producers to take a special interest in these youth programs as the national ID program unfolds. These valuable programs need your involvement to ensure the USDA's goals are met, while allowing the youth programs to continue providing valuable life experiences to young men and women. With the help and guidance of veteran pork producers, and the new identification technologies available today, these youth programs will survive and thrive.

The future of the U.S. pork industry, at many levels, will depend on an effective, national identification and security program. ID programs in several European countries, Canada and Australia are ahead of us. We cannot afford to trail our export competitors in this critical area.