Animal identification is one of the more controversial topics that spans across the agricultural countryside. Last month, USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service announced an animal identification proposal to improve the traceability of livestock moving interstate when animal disease events surface.

Now, 49 advocacy groups representing “the interests of family farmers, ranchers, and consumers” are asking USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack to extend the public comment period, according to Farm-to-Consumer Legal Defense Fund. The groups argue that “the controversial new proposal” would require U.S. livestock producers to incur significant expense tracking animals that cross state lines. The comment period on the proposed APHIS rule, “Traceability for Livestock Moving Interstate,” was scheduled to run from Aug. 11, when the proposed rule was published in the Federal Register to Nov. 9. The advocacy groups want an additional 60 days for comments.

"The period for public comment coincides with the fall harvest and comes during the worst drought ever recorded in some major livestock production regions,” says Judith McGeary, executive director of the Farm and Ranch Freedom Alliance and vice-chair of the USDA Secretary’s Advisory Committee on Animal Health. “Our farmers and ranchers are struggling to get their crops in and save their animals, and they need more time to assess the impacts of the proposed rule.”

Under new rule, unless specifically exempted, livestock that moves interstate would have to have an interstate certificate of veterinary inspection or other documentation, such as owner/shipper statements or brand certificates. Also, the newly outlined program would be mandatory versus USDA’s voluntary National Animal Identification System (NAIS) program. Other elements in APHIS’ proposal is that the states and tribal nations would administer the program to allow more flexibility; it would encourage the use of lower-cost technology; and it would be implemented through federal regulations and the full rule-making process.

Among the reasons cited to extend the comment period, the groups point out that “many farmers and ranchers are not online” which delays the speed to comment. In a letter to Vilsack, the groups cited 2007 Census of Agriculture data that more than 40 percent of farms do not have internet access. However, a USDA report released this month showed that 63 percent of livestock farms have computer access and 61 percent have Internet access.

Among the concerns is to provide ample time for farmers and ranchers in Amish and Mennonite communities. “We have a significant number of Amish and Mennonite members who can only be contacted by mail or through print publications,” explains Mark Kastel, senior farm policy analyst at The Cornucopia Institute. “They, in turn, will have to mail their comments to USDA. If the agency actually wants to hear from these livestock owners, it needs to extend the comment period.”

A reoccurring concern is the potential economic impacts on both livestock producers and related businesses. Gilles Stockton, a member of the Western Organization of Resource Councils, contends, “It will take a significant amount of time to pencil out the true costs of this proposal. Livestock producers, sale barns, and states deserve adequate time to figure these costs and give comment.”

U.S. pork producers have had an animal identification system in place since 1987, and the pork industry as a whole has long supported expanding mandatory identification to all farm animals in the effort to protect the nation’s livestock herd from foreign and emerging diseases. Approximately 95 percent of pork producer’s premises are already registered under USDA’s livestock identification program, according to the National Pork Producers Council.

Along with ensuring the domestic market, the pork industry’s concern lies with protecting the export market. “An effective traceability system is critical to the national animal health infrastructure and is required for certification by the World Organization for Animal Health (OIE),” note NPPC officials.

 U.S. pork exports are increasingly important to U.S. pork producers as this year sales are on pace to account for 22 percent to 25 percent of total annual production.

You can read the group’s letter to Vilsack here.