Knight addresses Wyoming ag’s burning questionsWritten by Jennifer Womack
USDA Under Secretary for Regulatory and Marketing Programs Bruce Knight focused his comments on three key areas – the 2007 Farm Bill, Country of Origin Labeling and the national animal identification program. He also took a moment to discuss brucellosis and explained USDA’s reasons for considering a move of the lab facilities now at Plum Island, N.Y. Each proved to be topics that drew considerable interest from the large crowd.
“This is one of the more serious concerns that lands on my plate,” Knight said of disease issues where a producer may be asked to depopulate his or her herd. “There’s nothing that weighs more heavily on my mind than when we have to ask someone to depopulate a herd.”
As for brucellosis in general, prior to recent cases in Montana and Wyoming, Knight said, “We thought we had it whipped.”
“We have to come to grips with the fact that we have a reservoir in the wildlife in the Greater Yellowstone Area. We need to find a way to address that without adversely impacting all the ranchers in the state of Montana, in Idaho and in Wyoming.”
Knight concluded, “We’re going to continue to have incidents until we can address the disease in wildlife. We’ve got to be working with the Park Service and Game and Fish until we can find an approach that works. I’ve asked my folks in APHIS [Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service] to start doing that kind of outreach.”
Country of Origin Labeling
“We’ve published those rules so we can implement it by Sept. 30 of this year,” Knight said of Country of Origin Labeling (COOL). Already in place on some seafood products, he said those rules were used as a template in drafting those that will apply to muscle cuts of meat. COOL only applies at the retail level and doesn’t affect restaurants, cafeterias or other places where prepared food is served. Processed products, such as Knight’s example of a can of stew, are exempt.
“You can’t just label what’s imported, you have to label everything,” he said. In the case of products like hamburger, often involving meat from multiple countries, Knight said all countries likely contributing meat to the final product would be listed.
Some of the regulations surrounding COOL as it relates to producers are yet to be determined. USDA is proposing that any official identification, including a bangs tag or an RFID tag, will serve as source of origin. As the rule takes affect, however, Knight said retailers might look back up the production chain for additional or different types of information. The law also allows verification via an affidavit, but Knight said it’s not determined if brand inspection papers will be included. He was also open to the idea of discussing inclusion of a Wyoming tag that’s being considered for a state-level animal identification program.
“I’m trying to seek common sense, cowboy ways of making it work,” said Knight. The beauty of using identification tags, he explained, is an animal carries all the information it needs right through the production chain.
“Plain and simple, I’ll be the first to admit it’s been extraordinarily controversial,” Knight said of individual animal identification. “It’s an attempt to protect your herd health and your livelihood as ranchers. It’s not intended to be some broad-scoped invasive government outreach, but rather simply being able to help you in the event of disease emergency.”
Knight said because Foot and Mouth Disease (FMD) can spread rapidly, it is the disease his agency uses for planning purposes.
Knight said he and Secretary of Agriculture Mike Johanns are committed to keeping the program voluntary. “We want to sell people on the benefits of animal identification and give them the choice as businessmen and women whether to participate.” Crowd members told Knight that requirements by some states have taken the program beyond voluntary.
While one-third of livestock owners across the nation have registered their premises, Knight said Wyoming lags behind with around 20 percent registered.
Answering a question about potential relocation of the USDA Plum Island Animal Disease Center in New York, Knight explained the difficulties surrounding work at Plum Island.
“When we have to do a test for FMD,” he offered as an example, “we have to get samples from the U.S. to Plum Island.” That move, he said, involves flying the samples to the area at a time when weather conditions allow landing. Once on the ground the samples have to be taken via ferry to the island.
“With today’s technology, the island is false assurance,” said Knight. “The real protection lies within today’s technology of a box within a box, reverse flow on the ventilation and each of those things that provide better protection.” Noting that a final decision hasn’t been made, Knight said Canada’s facility of comparison is in downtown Winnipeg. About five mainland locations are being considered as a location for the laboratory.