We Americans are a cheeky lot. We’ve built this nation on independence, courage and true grit. We’re rags to riches, Don’t Tread On Me and don’t tell us what to do. If you don’t like it, leave it.
But a strength can also be a weakness. And that’s the case with our bull-headed opposition to animal identification and our insistence that a major disease outbreak could never happen in this country.
Six years ago, England was ravaged by a foot-and-mouth disease (FMD) epidemic. Between 6.5 million and 10 million animals were slaughtered and burned. The estimated economic and societal cost was an staggering $17 billion. British farmers – the ones who could stay in business – are just now starting to get back on their feet.
This week, another outbreak has been confirmed in southeast England. Approximately 97 cattle in three herds, owned by three separate farms, have already been killed as a precaution. A national ban on the movement of all livestock was put in place Aug. 4 and the country has suspended meat product, animal carcass and milk exports. The movement ban includes all shows and no animals are permitted to move from shows if they’re already on the grounds.
Part of England’s immediate response was to make telephone contact with all known livestock farms in the immediate vicinity, and then deliver packets of information to those livestock farms. As of Aug. 5, the country’s Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs estimates there are approximately 750 cattle, 1,500 sheep and 200 pigs located on the 75 premises within the protection zone.
If this outbreak occurred on one of your neighboring farms right now, the U.S. government couldn’t call you to let you know what’s going on. It couldn’t mail or hand-deliver information. Because the government may or may not know you even have animals.
This is not about Big Brother. The government doesn’t care how many animals you own or where they are. It does care about tracing animals in the event of a disease outbreak.
Access to confidential data in the USDA’s Animal Trace Processing System is restricted to: an indication or confirmed positive test of a foreign animal disease; an animal disease emergency; a need to trace back or forward to determine the origin of infection for a program disease.
I am convinced that tracing animals as a means of isolating infected animals and potential exposed animals would help the U.S. contain disease outbreaks.
A disease outbreak that restricted cattle movement would bring this country’s livestock industry to its knees. It could close the food pipeline from processors to grocery stores. It would impact consumers. It would take only an isolated incident to trigger nationwide panic.
The British Meat and Livestock Commission calculates the export ban alone will cost England’s red meat industry approximately $20 million a week. A week.
I realize animal identification is a costly venture, but even low-tech branding is a part of the national animal ID system. And I also realize there are many other questions and concerns; the devil is always in the details.
But we can’t be so arrogant to think that we are immune to mad cow disease or foot-and-mouth disease or any other devastating animal disease in this country. We need a national animal identification system.
(Farm and Dairy Editor Susan Crowell can be reached at 800-837-3419 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.)