September 2011
From the State Vet's Office

Disease Traceability

Could you pick your cow out of a line-up?

Someone once asked a girl I knew what kind of car she drove. Without a moment’s hesitation, she replied, "A white one." That conjured up an interesting scenario in my mind. What if this same girl needed you to pick up her car and bring it to her? You ask her where the car is located and she tells you it is outside the football stadium at Auburn University (it is on the day of the Alabama-Auburn game, by the way). You ask her for a description of the car and she just says, "It’s white." She doesn’t know a make, model or remember the tag number…just a white car outside the football stadium on game day. You may think the scenario of tracing down the white car is a bit of a stretch—and it is. But we would eventually find her car.

Sometimes when we try to trace cattle, and to some extent horses, we get less information than that. At least we knew the general area where the car was located. Occasionally, when we try to trace animals, we get, "She was a black cow." And that’s all we get. After the April 27th tornadoes, we did our best to keep up with the cattle killed by the storms. That number was surprisingly low. The category of animalsvery difficult to get a handle on was the number of cattle lost after the storm. Notice I said lost, not killed. There were so many fences down, so many cattle that just walked off, never to be seen again by their owner. One fellow in North Alabama said he had 168 head of brood cows and calves on April 26th and only 68 on April 28th. About two weeks after the storm, he still couldn’t account for the 100 missing head. He figured they eventually made it to the stockyard. Unfortunately, none of the cattle had any identification other than, "They were mostly black."

In addition to the obvious need to identify livestock in the event of disasters, the need to identify and trace animal disease is even more important. It all eventually comes down to the sustainability of animal agriculture. Some who disagree with me would say it’s all about money, but I believe those people need to peel back one more layer. The ability of the producer to make money cannot be separated from his or her ability to remain in business and, ultimately, the ability to offer animal protein (meat) on the marketplace. Cattle prices are near record levels now and they should be. Everything else is. I saw a Ford King Ranch F350 the other day with a sticker price of $64,000 dollars. If I bought that truck, I would have to live in it. Sorry—I got distracted. Anyway, with a commodity like beef, supply and demand play a huge role in price. If prices remain high, producers will make sure, when I want my medium ribeye, it will be there.

Now, if you will imagine we have a Sears Craftsman 22 Drawer Tool Chest on Rollers. We will call the tool chest "Sustainability of Animal Agriculture." One drawer is labeled, "Animal Health and Well-Being." It contains tools like wormer, vaccines, antibiotics, humane handling practices and so on. Another drawer is labeled, "Marketing." There are other drawers labeled, "Research," "Education" and a whole bunch of other stuff (we’ve got 22 drawers to fill). Finally, there is a drawer labeled, "Disease Traceability." Inside this drawer we will find tools like recordkeeping, Certificates of Veterinary Inspection (health certificates), identification and regulations. This drawer is very important to me because I have been assigned to oversee "Disease Traceability" in Alabama.

In late June, the Southeastern Livestock Network (SLN), a group composed of cattlemen’s associations from ten Southeastern states, along with regulatory officials like me, met to discuss the status of disease traceability. (The SLN was created to support the development of a cattle identification program not burdensome to Southeastern producers, but at the same time fulfill the needs of people on my side of the fence who need to trace diseases.) They understand the urgent need to develop a system to identify and trace diseased and exposed animals. The producers involved in the SLN understand that to compete in the world market where almost all other beef exporting countries have disease traceability, we must follow suit. In the past, maybe we have put too much emphasis on "if we ever get foot and mouth disease." While that possibility is still on the table, we are, right now, dealing with old diseases like bovine tuberculosis. And for that matter, even though we have not had a case of brucellosis here in Alabama since the late 1990s, the disease is still out there. It did not vanish and go away. In fact, as we are seeing a resurgence of bovine tuberculosis in parts of the country, doing nothing about disease traceability could put a hardship and even movement restrictions on our Alabama cattle producers.

If you follow the news, you are aware that during the late-spring and early-summer one of the most significant health events world-wide was the E. coli outbreak in Europe linked to vegetables. At least 50 people died, including one person from Arizona, who ate a salad while touring Europe. Additionally, there were over 3,100 people who became ill during the outbreak. Originally, it was thought cucumbers were the culprit. As I write this column, they believe raw sprouts were involved. I recently spoke to someone who is from Europe and had traveled home for a visit. He told me, because of the outbreak, regulations were being written left and right to try and control how raw vegetables were grown, shipped and handled. The thing concerning me most is, while all these regulations are being drawn up, it is not agriculture driving the bus.

Just like the E. coli outbreak in Europe, we are one crisis away from volumes of regulations being written by those who do not understand agriculture. We are now trying to be proactive in developing a traceability plan that will likely include requiring animals to be identified at change of ownership. We are presently working on state regulations enabling us to trace diseased and exposed animals. This comes partly as a result of a lack of any regulations put forth by the federal government. After millions of federal dollars spent in this effort since 2005, the ball has not been moved down the field much farther than when it started. As I said before, if we do it now, in cooperation with our industry partners, we get to drive the bus. If we don’t, we could find ourselves on the side of the road with our thumb in the air, trying to hitch a ride.

Dr. Tony Frazier is the State Veterinarian for the state of Alabama.