A Government Accountability Office (GAO) report requested by Senator Tom Harkin (D-IA) and released today found weaknesses in USDA’s plan to implement a national animal identification system. Harkin asked GAO to examine USDA’s animal ID plan in November 2005 after concerns were raised that USDA was not effectively implementing the system and not informing producers and livestock market operators how much the system will cost their operations. Harkin is chairman of the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry. 

In response to concerns about animal disease outbreaks, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) announced in December 2003 that it would implement a nationwide program — later named the National Animal Identification System (NAIS) — to help producers and animal health officials respond quickly and effectively to animal disease outbreaks in the United States.

“Animal diseases are a constant and very real threat to the livestock and poultry industries since an outbreak could wreak havoc for trade and our domestic markets. Yet, USDA has taken a slow, indecisive and confusing adoption of the animal ID system.”

“This GAO audit confirms the concerns producers and livestock market operators had about USDA’s animal ID plan for some time now: that is USDA has much further work to do so that this system is on the right track and workable.” 

“I strongly urge USDA to implement GAO recommendations without delay and make it clear to producers what is expected of them and how they envision this system working.” 

The GAO report shows that unless they are corrected, these problems will undermine the USDA’s ability to rapidly and effectively trace animals back to their origin when a disease breaks out. The agency identified the following issues of concern:

  • The USDA lacks a comprehensive cost estimate or cost-benefit analysis for the implementation and maintenance of the animal ID system. In response to GAO’s recommendation to do so, USDA has now entered into a contract to have a cost estimate conducted.
  • USDA has not prioritized the implementation of the animal ID system according to economic value of the species or those most at risk for specific animal diseases.
  • USDA has not developed a plan to integrate the animal ID system with preexisting animal disease eradication programs for hogs, cattle, sheep or goats, thus duplicating effort and cost to producers.
  • USDA has awarded 169 animal ID cooperative agreements totaling $35 million but has failed to adequately monitor the agreements or determine if the intended outcomes, for which the funds were used, were achieved. USDA has also not consistently shared the results of the agreements with state departments of agriculture, industry groups, or other stakeholders to allow them to learn from experience under the cooperative agreements.
  • The timeframe for effective animal disease traceback from where animals have been raised is not clearly defined for specific species. Some contagious diseases need to be tracked and identified in a very short amount of time to limit further spread of the animal disease. 
  •  Tracing animals from their original origin will be problematic given that USDA is not requiring critical information, such as the type of animal species, date of birth, or approximate age of animals to be recorded in the animal ID system. This information is necessary to limit the scope of an animal disease investigation.
  • USDA has no benchmarks to determine if there is sufficient participation to achieve an effective animal ID system.

USDA has not independently tested animal ID or tracking devices and this is causing producers, livestock markets and others to not invest in such devices. 

Source: Agriculture, Nutrition & Forestry DEM Committee press release