Opportunities For Vets Seen In ID Rollout

A new USDA program is rolled out to identify and track large animals.

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Being able to identify and track large animals during a potential health threat is the propelling force behind the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Animal Identification System, currently being refined and rolled out on a voluntary basis.

Program officials said that veterinarians should prepare themselves for client questions and concerns by becoming educated on the topic.

Opportunity On the Rise

This new program could open up huge barn doors to the veterinary profession, said Mark Spire, DVM, past president of the American Assn. of Bovine Practitioners and professor of diagnostic medicine/pathobiology at Kansas State University.

“Veterinarians can become proactive and work with producers,” he said.

Also, they could investigate becoming a “tagger” and then meet new clients, suggesting ways to work with the animals’ health issues, nutrition, vaccination schedules and recording.

“That’s a value market base for a veterinary practice,” Dr. Spire said.

“This is the biggest opportunity the veterinary profession has had in years,” Spire said.

Spire took part in the U.S. Animal Identification Plan, now the NAIS, which laid out framework and defined standards for implementing an identification system.

By the middle of 2005, program officials hope that all states will be capable of premises registration, which is the process of identifying locations, such as farms or ranches, where animals are held or managed. Once that’s in place, an identification system for individual animals can be explored, say USDA officials.

While the program is being refined, participation will be voluntary. At some time in the future, the USDA may make it mandatory for all species in the agricultural industry, which encompasses food animals as well as other livestock including alpacas, llamas, cattle, bison, deer, elk, equine, goats, poultry, sheep and swine.

Knowing where an animal is and where it’s been is crucial during a disease outbreak. The goal of this program is to be able to identify, track and contain a dangerous health issue within 48 hours of discovery, according to the Animal and Plant Heath Inspection Service’s Web site, www.aphis.usda.gov.

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Brucellosis, tuberculosis, foot and mouth disease, bovine spongiform encephalopathy (mad cow disease) and terrorist attacks targeting livestock are a few factors pushing the need for a national identification system.

“It’s for animal health reasons,” said Amy Spillman, spokeswoman with the USDA’s APHIS. “Everybody understands this [program] is coming, and they see this as a necessity, too.”

Currently, USDA officials are spreading the word by visiting various conferences, fairs, shows and other gatherings across the country, answering questions and addressing concerns.

Top issues involve aesthetics and confidentiality of data.

Spillman said many alpaca farmers worry about ear tagging their livestock or wrapping anything around the animals’ necks that might crush the hair fibers.

Although the USDA stands firm on its “technologically neutral” position regarding ways animals will be marked, it is working on ways to identify animals without compromising need or function.

“Producers are used to the fact that animals have to be identified in some manner,” said Tom Burkgren, DVM, executive director of the American Assn. of Swine Veterinarians in Perry, Iowa. “There are some real positives in the swine industry.”

But the data issue is a sensitive topic.

“We’re trying to address [the data issue] because we understand [producers] don’t want their production data out there for everyone to read,” Spillman said.  She said that only certain information would be accessed during an epidemiological investigation.

Also, liability issues concern farmers: How far back can information be traced if something goes wrong with an animal?

“If we have practiced due diligence with our animals, will we be protected?” Spire said. He uses an example of diseases and if an animal gets sick after it’s sold, farmers wonder who will be to blame.

Despite concerns, Spillman said the general consensus has been positive.

Get the Facts

The most important thing a veterinarian can do right now is gather as much information as possible about the details of NAIS through the Internet or state animal health authorities.

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Some states are rolling out volunteer premises registration, but Wisconsin has enacted a law stating that premises registration will be mandatory by November 2005, Spillman said.

The USDA, which hosted a series of listening sessions this past summer, will launch a Web site in the coming months, eventually providing the public with species-specific sites.

“Get familiar with the process,” advised Mark Engle, DVM, a member of the National Pork Board in Des Moines, Iowa. “There are a lot of opportunities to get the basic information about what’s been done and what’s going on. Make sure you understand the [NAIS process in your state].”

Challenges Ahead

Engle predicts that the biggest hurdle for veterinarians is how to address the differences in identifying each species, while still having an effective, proven ID system.

For example, poultry and swine farmers will most likely be tagged as a group, while many farmers in the cattle industry hope animals in their herds are marked individually.

“Until we have some clear indication as to where the USDA is going, it [is hard to issue veterinarians any recommendations],” Burkgren said.

Lynnette Ohl, DVM, of the Crawford County Veterinary Clinic in Denison, Iowa, reported that not much information is being distributed to the veterinarians, and her clients are not concerned.

“They don’t have to do it yet, so they don’t care,” she said. “They’re not going to do it until someone forces them to.”

Even though the national animal ID system is partially government funded, individual farmers will have to ante up some money. Spillman is unsure of an exact monetary amount or percentage at this time.

In 2004, the USDA invested $18.8 million into the program, with an additional $33 million requested for 2005. This cost factor is one concern that Ohl hears rumbling amongst her clients, some of which have 200 head of cattle.

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“The farmers know what’s going to happen,” she said. “There’s going to be a fee here and a fee there, just like everything else the government does.”

Kyra Kirwood is a frequent contributor to Veterinary Practice News.

This article first appeared in the December 2004 issue of Veterinary Practice News.

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