Solutions, not spats.

That was the theme of the Joint Strategy Forum on Animal Disease Traceability sponsored by the National Institute for Animal Agriculture and the United States Animal Health Association in Denver earlier this week. And it was a welcome respite from the sometimes contentious commentary that surrounded the plan’s predecessor, the National Animal Identification System that was scrapped earlier this year for the disease traceability approach.

The meeting was billed as a final opportunity to provide input to USDA before it writes the proposed rules for the new Animal Disease Traceability framework. USDA also held three listening sessions (in Madison, Wis., Atlanta, Ga. and Pasco, Wash.) last month to gather additional feedback on the plan before drafting begins.

According to USDA, the proposed rule would require animals moved interstate to be officially identified (individually or by group/lot) and accompanied by an Interstate Certificate of Veterinary Inspection unless otherwise exempt. Any producer data would be controlled by individual state or tribal programs, and the plan would be performance- and outcome-based using traceability performance measures.

“This needs to be a flexible, coordinated approach that builds on what has been successful,” says John Clifford, USDA-Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service chief veterinarian.

The agency plans to roll out the new rules next April, which will be followed by a 60- to 90-day comment period. The final rule would take effect about a year after the comment period closes.

Instead of focusing on the areas of least agreement — like voluntary vs. mandatory programs, religion and food safety — meeting participants tried a new approach. They spent most of their time on areas that could be agreed upon, like the idea that we really do need an animal disease traceability system in this country.

“The issues are still there, but we need to look at solutions we can give, improvements we can make to the plan,” says Robert Fourdraine, chief operating officer of the Wisconsin Livestock Identification Consortium and president of NIAA.

For instance, attendees agreed that 9-character silver, or brite, tags offer a baseline for official animal identification; advanced technology, like electronic ID, may be used when preferred. And there was consensus that the ADT needs to reassess how and when it adds feeder cattle to the program. A number of organizations stepped up and offered educational support to help bring their members on board with the plan, as well.

Plan architects were also urged to find real-world solutions to problems and concerns, and look to states or programs that have already implemented traceability plans for guidance.

So did the ballroom-full group of veterinarians, animal health officials and industry representatives hold hands and sing campfire songs in perfect harmony? Not even close.

There’s still much work to do. But the fact that the group did find major points of agreement, and that the general attitude was collaborative, not combative, is significant. There was helpful dialog with USDA officials throughout the sessions, offering hope that the concerns and suggestions were heard and will be incorporated into the final plan.

“There is no perfect system, there will always be failures along the way,” says Dave Daley, associate dean of the College of Agriculture at Chico State University. “We need to quit trying to achieve an A on the initial step; we’re never going to get there. If we can get a C on this plan, we’ll be doing well.”

We can improve the program as warranted — and it will be warranted, I’m sure. But we have to start somewhere. And it seems as though we are headed in the right direction. As was noted in the meeting, we have one more shot to get it right. So let’s work together to make the most of this second chance.

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