Embracing Technology to Enhance Disease Traceability

Embracing Technology to Enhance Disease Traceability
Editorial by SDCA President Eric Jennings
I have been a fierce defendant of my flip phone for several years, even as those around me, and people I barely know, felt it necessary to suggest that I should have a smart phone. They would go on about all the advantages of a smart phone; I could text easier, check email, share documents, and travel easier… Yada, Yada, Yada. I figured I needed a cell phone to make calls and send an occasional text to the people I needed to reach but didn’t want to talk to; both things within the capability of my flip phone. I felt that most of those other functions benefitted those around me instead of me, and after all, I would be the one paying for it, so I wasn’t going to get one.  

The phone upgrade became a battle of wills, which inspired my ornery and stubborn streak. This character attribute is not something that I am particularly proud of, but one that has at times been useful. I even went so far as to say “I will give up my flip phone when they pry my cold dead fingers off of it”. I am still alive and well, but alas, I have now upgraded to a smart phone. There are two main reasons I consented to an upgrade. One being that my flip phone was not compatible with 5G technology and would no longer have service as of January 1, 2023, and the other being that after attending the SDCA convention, I realized I need to embrace technology on a higher level. Some of you may have been the recipient of my struggles with a new phone. People who have called me have been greeted by me swearing at my phone because my phone didn’t recognize me swiping at it to answer, and when I was finally able to answer, I sometimes press the phone too close to my cheek only to hang-up on them – all issues I did not experience with my flip phone. Even though my relationship with my smart phone is off to a rocky start, I recognize that it has far more capabilities than my flip phone and I am strongly encouraging myself to learn how to make use of them.   

The United States Department of Agriculture’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Services (USDA APHIS) has once again released proposed rules for an updated national identification program. I say once again because they have tried this several times before, but because of missteps on their part and lawsuits from their opposition, the rules have never been finalized.  From what I can tell, we all agree on the fact that we need a national identification system.  Disease traceability is important to mitigate the spread of a catastrophic disease that will eventually enter the United States.  Although the U.S. has strict regulations to safeguard our cattle herd from the risk of importing disease to the U.S. by cattle, I say it eventually will happen because somebody visiting a foreign country will pick it up on their shoe and unknowingly bring it over here. Denial of an outbreak is not a good plan of action, but preparation is. A vaccine bank for Foot and Mouth was created in the last Farm Bill, and continuing that program is vitally important for our industry. So is having a traceability system that better keeps up with the speed of commerce. Cattle move around this country at a shocking pace. They can move from state to state, sale ring to feed yard to sale ring to feed yard, co-mingling along the way with the opportunity of spreading disease at an alarming rate. The quicker we are able to identify and isolate exposed cattle after detection, the quicker we will be able to stop the spread of the disease. It’s that simple and electronic identification gives us the ability to trace movements in the matter of hours instead of days, and at a level of accuracy that we all expect.  

Our current traceability system involves restraining cows to read a multiple digit number on a metal ear tag. That number is written on a piece of paper which is eventually sent to an office where someone must transmit those numbers to a data base or file those numbers until needed. We also have to ability to use a back tag on cows headed to a feedlot or slaughter facility, which are certainly not permanent.  

Utilizing today’s technology allows us to accurately record and quickly transmit cow numbers, thus greatly enhancing the traceability of cattle to limit the spread of disease. That is what the proposed rules of this national identification system are about. It is not about shifting liability to producers, protecting the packers, or knowing who has how many cows. It is about limiting the spread of a catastrophic disease in the event of a disease breakout.  Our current system allows us to trace back cattle movements, just like my flip phone allowed me to make calls; but we have the technology to do better. That technology will continue to get better, just like the next version of my smart phone will do more. Whether we are excited, or even tolerant, of new technology or not; we need to embrace and utilize it, or our industry will be faced with a devastating disease outbreak that will affect far more cattle than it should. And when that happens, we will only have ourselves to blame.