MILWAUKEE — A new livestock identification program to help agriculture officials to quickly track livestock in cases of disease outbreaks has been launched by the US Dept. of Agriculture.

This marks the USDA’s second attempt at implementing such a system, after a voluntary program in 2006 was abandoned due to the reluctance of livestock producers to participate in a program many felt was too invasive and costly.

This livestock identification system’s primary goal is to track animal movements across state lines, so agriculture and health officials can quickly establish quarantines and initiate other steps to prevent the spread of disease.

"This ensures that healthy animals can continue to move freely to processing facilities, providing a dependable and affordable source for consumers as well as protecting producer's livelihoods," Abby Yigzaw, spokeswoman for the USDA's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, said in an Associated Press story.

Livestock identification also helps investigators determine the source of disease — and whether it happened naturally or someone tampered with the food system, said Michael Doyle, director of the Univ. of Georgia's Center for Food Safety. "Identify the farm from which it originated, which can help you identify the source," Doyle said, adding, "Did it come in from the feed? Was it intentional?"

Although the new program is mandatory, it is more limited in scope. It applies only to animals being shipped across state lines, and gives states flexibility in deciding how animals will be identified — an important concession to cattle ranchers in western states, where brands are still commonly used.

The program covers a range of livestock, but much of the focus has been on cattle partly because aggressive programs to fight diseases such as sheep scabies have already resulted in widespread identification of those animals, said Neil Hammerschmidt, APHIS' animal disease traceability program manager. Tracking cows has been less of a concern over the past decade because earlier programs targeting diseases that affect them have been successful, he added.

Still, tracebacks, in which a sick animal's movements are reviewed as part of the effort to control the spread of a disease, aren't unusual. Dr. Paul McGraw, state veterinarian in Wisconsin, recalled a number done because of tuberculosis in cattle. "It's probably safe to say nationwide, there's probably been five or six of those in the last two to three years," McGraw said.

The rules that went into effect March 11 require dairy cows and sexually intact beef cattle more than 18 months of age to be registered when they are shipped over state lines and outline acceptable forms of identification. In most cases, farmers and ranchers are likely to use ear tags that assign a number to each animal.

In Wisconsin, many of the larger dairy farms have already switched to ear tags that can be scanned electronically, said Mark Diederichs, president of the Board of Directors of the Professional Dairy Producers of Wisconsin. The tags meet federal standards but aren't required because of the cost.

Ear tags also are important as companies like McDonald's want to know where their food came from and be able to trace it back, Diederichs said, adding, "I think that's going to be the bigger push" for others to switch.

The federal rules allow two states to agree on alternative forms of identification, such as brands, for use with animals shipped between them.

This is an improvement over the earlier program, said South Dakota rancher Kenny Fox, but he still believes the federal government should recognize brands. Ear tags can fall off, but brands are a permanent mark of ownership, he said. And brands can be registered and assigned a number in computer systems so that they can be quickly tracked back to a farm or ranch.

Fox, the animal identification committee chairman for R-Calf USA, an advocacy group for ranchers, said the program won't mean a big change in practice for him. He has about 500 cows plus their calves in Belvidere, SD, and already tags his cows as part of a program to control brucellosis, a disease that can cause pregnant animals to miscarry. But he also brands his cattle because the state recognizes brands as proof of ownership.

"It has been very beneficial to our operation," Fox said. "In the past, the inspectors have found three, four animals that belong to me that were mixed up with other people's livestock."