Animal disease, not human food safety, is the purpose of traceability in the United States. It means that if there is an outbreak of hoof and mouth disease, tracing it to impacted herds might be possible.

But if you think traceability should make it possible to trace the hamburger from a 2-lb package of ground beef to the farm or ranch, forget about it. If you want traceability for food safety, you might want to buy European meat products.

USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) has been clear since 2013 that its traceability program is not about food safety, but for tracking animals that might be subject to diseases.

The APHIS rule that’s been in effect since 2013 is about “traceability for livestock moved interstate.” Old fashioned branding, tattoos, and other identification methods recognized by breed associations are part of the existing program.

Last April, APHIS posted a factsheet on its website, showing goals and guidelines for its Animal Disease Traceability program. “Since the Factsheet was posted, APHIS has listened to the livestock industry’s feedback,” the agency’s statement on the issue says. “In light of these comments and current Executive Branch policy, APHIS believes that we should revisit those guidelines.”

It says APHIS removed the April 2019 factsheet from its website, and “it is no longer representative of current policy.” APHIS pulled back because of the livestock industry’s reaction and because of two recent Executive Orders.

The Factsheet was just the sort of non-binding “guidance” that President Trump opposes. He also outlined the transparency expected in administrative rule-making. Both were topics of Executive Orders in late 2019.

“APHIS has decided not to implement the requirements outlined in the April 2019 Factsheet regarding the type of the device that USDA-APHIS will regard official ear tags and the dates by which they must be applied to cattle,” the statement adds.

APHIS says it will “reconsider the path forward,” and there is a need to advance “a robust joint Federal-State-Industry Animal Disease Traceability (ADI) capability.

But APHIS also makes it clear that branding irons are not going to cut it. “As we undertake this reconsideration of whether or when to put new requirements in place, we will encourage the use of Radio Frequency Identification devices through financial incentives that are also consistent with suggestions we have received from cow/calf producers and other,” according to APHIS.

The APHIS statement says it continues to believe RFID devices provide the “best protection” against the rapid spread of animal disease “as well as meet the growing expectations of foreign and domestic buyers.”

The APHIS statement about the removal of the April 2019 Factsheet from its website came on Oct. 25, 2019. That was three weeks after the Billing, MT-Ranchers Cattlemen Action Legal Fund, Stockgrowers of America, also known as R-CALF USA, sued APHIS in federal court in Wyoming.

R-CALF, which represents cattle producers, opposes RFID traceability mostly over cost. When the Factsheet was removed from the APHIS website, the R-CALF lawsuit became a dead letter. It was dismissed on Feb. 13.

Traceability undoubtedly comes with a cost, but it also creates value.   “A robust, whole chain traceability system could effectively minimize food safety issues by providing real-time transparent and reliable information from beef production through processing and distribution and on the consumer,” reports the National Whole Chain Traceability Institute.

A joint venture of Oklahoma State University (OSU), The Sam Roberts Noble Foundation, University of Arkansas, and Top 10 Produce, the Institute says “a well-functioning whole-chain traceability system could cut down recall times to “minutes instead of days.”

Experts also predict US.producers will find export markets closed to our exports because of inferior traceability.

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