The USDA on Thursday issued its long-awaited final rule for animal disease traceability, drawing praise from some corners and attacks from others. The new rule will require official identification for animals crossing state lines, with several significant exceptions.

The rule’s traceability requirements focus primarily on breeding cattle. Most beef cattle under 18 months of age, for example, are exempt, meaning calves and feeder cattle, which make up the bulk of cattle entering commerce, will not need official identification, at least for now. The USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) has indicated all along that it will consider adding traceability requirements for additional classes of cattle once the program is established, tested and fine-tuned on smaller numbers.

Since APHIS issued its proposed rule in August 2011 they received thousands of comments from industry stakeholders, and incorporated several modifications to the final rule based on those comments. A key change is the agency will accept the use of brands, tattoos and brand registration as official identification when accepted by the shipping and receiving states or tribes.

In its Thursday release, the agency says specific traceability requirements for calves and feeder cattle “will be addressed in separate rulemaking, allowing APHIS to work closely with industry to ensure the effective implementation of the identification requirements.” Among younger cattle, the new rule will require official identification for cattle less than 18 months of age being transported across state lines to shows, exhibitions, rodeos or recreational events.

The rule also clarifies that all livestock moved interstate to a custom slaughter facility are exempt from the regulations

USDA has emphasized the sole purpose of their traceability framework is to prevent the spread of disease by quickly tracking sick animals to their source, facilitating quarantines or other interventions while minimizing the scope of quarantines or culling. The agency notes that through the National Scrapie Eradication Program, 92 percent of cull breeding sheep are officially identified at slaughter, primarily using flock identification eartags. This level of official identification made it possible in fiscal year 2010 to achieve traceback from slaughter of scrapie-positive sheep to the flock of origin or birth 96 percent of the time, typically in a matter of minutes.

Contagious diseases, they say, require traceability to more than the birth premises. The system will need the capability to track animals to other stops between birth and slaughter, so the scrapie model is not a complete solution for such diseases.

APHIS projects that costs for the program, resulting primarily from eartags and documentation associated with Interstate Certificates of Veterinary Inspection, will range between $14.5 million and $34.3 million, assuming official identification will be undertaken separately from other routine management practices. If producers combine tagging with other processing activities, the total costs would fall between $10.9 million and $23.5 million. The agency expects, though, that savings gained by more effective traceback will exceed the program’s costs.

USDA plans to publish the new rule in the December 28 Federal Register. Its provisions will take effect 60 days later, on February 26, 2013.

Read the full rule from USDA/APHIS.