USDA has gotten off the proverbial dime and has formally proposed a regulation that would implement a traceability system to protect the health of U.S. farm animals. It also will help keep American meat exports flowing in the event of an animal disease outbreak.

The agency has struggled since 2004 to implement some type of nationally standardized pre-harvest animal traceability program to quickly identify, control and eradicate a contagious disease. But the agency’s own missteps, vocal opposition from a few groups and, eventually, a lack of funding doomed those efforts.

Initially, USDA proposed the National Animal Identification System, which would have required livestock and poultry producers to register their premises. This included providing a contact or producer name, a street address, telephone number and the types of livestock and/or poultry maintained on their operation. While this information already is publicly available, it’s not in a central location. The goal of the system was to allow an animal to be traced back to its premises of origin within 48 hours of a disease issue.

The U.S. pork industry supported NAIS, urging USDA to make it mandatory and to allow each species to adopt its own identification program. In fact, the National Pork Producers Council and the National Pork Board, through policies adopted by their producer delegate bodies, have worked aggressively to enhance a mandatory swine identification system that the industry has had in place since 1988. That plan, which covers pigs moving in interstate and international commerce, helped eradicate pseudorabies and currently allows the industry to trace pigs back to their farms of origin. NPPC and NPB established a Swine Identification Implementation task force, comprised of all segments of the pork industry, to improve that comprehensive swine ID plan to further strengthen the swine health infrastructure.

Today, more than 95 percent of pork production sites, covering nearly all of the commercially raised hogs, have a nationally standardized premises identification number.

In 2010, USDA dropped its plans for NAIS in favor of a scaled-back, voluntary animal disease traceability program. Now, the new proposal published in the Federal Register in mid-August calls for (as the pork industry requested) a species-specific approach. It would require livestock and poultry that move within interstate commerce to have an identification number and to be accompanied by an “Interstate Certificate of Veterinary Inspection.” No certificate would be needed for animals destined for slaughter since veterinary inspection already occurs within the harvest channels.

While the latest proposed plan deals mostly with the traceability of beef cattle — an industry far behind in registering premises — it also has sections dealing with dairy cattle. The proposed plan defers to the current code of federal regulations for the identification of swine in interstate commerce, which has been in place since the late 1980s.

For its part, the U.S. pork industry is now focusing on improving individual identification of sows and boars that enter harvest channels. Since it is common practice to commingle sows and boars with animals from other sources, an effective pre-harvest traceability plan requires that each animal be identified to an owner and source premises. Currently this is done using an official USDA back tag.

As the pork industry continues to implement its swine ID plan, individual identification of breeding stock will transition to official ear tags called premises identification number tags. (Because market hogs move in groups or lots, they do not require individual PINs.)

No doubt there will be some opposition to USDA’s new plan, but it is imperative that there be a system to quickly manage any animal disease outbreak in this country. And says former USDA Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service administrator Bob Acord, “It’s not a question of if we’re going to have an outbreak, it’s a question of when.”

There is any number of foreign animal diseases — several countries are dealing with foot-and-mouth disease — that are ready to infect just one U.S. pig and cause massive economic disorder in this country’s pork industry. Among the disorder would be the disruption of U.S. pork exports. According to Iowa State University estimates, pork producers would lose $56 per head (the value that was added to each market hog from exports in 2010) should overseas markets close because of a disease outbreak in the United States.

So an animal identification plan is critical to the U.S. pork industry’s continued viability, as well as that of the entire livestock sector. The United States must establish a system that would allow animal health officials to better identify, control and eradicate diseases that could infect the country’s livestock herds and affect domestic and international markets.

Besides that, U.S. trading partners are increasingly asking for animal identification and pre-harvest traceability as a condition for accepting U.S. pork and pork products into their countries. They want assurances that the United States has the capability to quickly trace diseased animals to their farm of origin and to determine whether product exposed to a disease has been shipped to them.

Additionally, most U.S. pork packers today require as a condition of sale that producers complete an assessment of their operation and gain “site status” under NPB’s Pork Quality Assurance Plus program. To gain such status, the production site must have a PIN.

The lack of a nationally standardized pre-harvest animal traceability system over the past several years has placed the United States at a competitive disadvantage with other countries, such as Canada, Australia and the United Kingdom, all of which already have mandatory systems.

It is well past time to erase that disadvantage, enhance our ability to protect animal health and defend our export markets. USDA’s proposed animal disease traceability system will go a long way toward achieving those goals.