When it first develops deep in the ocean, a tsunami is barely a ripple. Few people notice. Sometimes it dissipates on its own. Sometimes it grows into a devastating force that destroys everything in its path. People panic and run. If they're fortunate, they survive. Without adequate warning, sometimes it's too late.
When a small dairy farm in Saginaw County allegedly moved animals without radio frequency identification (RFID) tags in 2012, few people noticed. When a number of those animals were found to have bovine tuberculosis, the wave began to build. Before long, it spread out to two adjacent counties. Now its waves – though not the disease – have touched Indiana and likely beyond, and Michigan's livestock industry is bracing for the impact. It's not running from it, and neither is the Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development (MDARD). But it appears that the USDA knows where and when the giant wave will land, and yet refuses to warn Michigan's animal agriculture industry.
"There seems to be a chain of unaccountability," said Jeff Kala, a Presque Isle County cattleman and chair of the state's TB Advisory Committee. "No one in Michigan seems to know what's going on. A few individuals and sale barns are selling cattle without RFID tags, but no one has been penalized for violating the law. The reason the USDA treats Michigan the way it does is because Michigan handles things in such a poor manner."
That accusation is difficult to argue with, given the track record revealed by the TB traceout investigation currently ongoing as a result of the Saginaw farm's alleged actions.
"It appears that not everyone is following the rules," said Ernie Birchmeier, livestock specialist with Michigan Farm Bureau and its representative on the TB Advisory Committee. "That means someone is not enforcing the rules, and that's a problem. We worked diligently in Michigan to pass laws and build programs that protect animal health, and we touted to all our trading partners and USDA that the RFID tag system was the premier system in the world. But now it appears there is a breakdown of that system, and it's putting our beef and dairy industries in jeopardy."
The breakdown, Birchmeier said, begins at the farm - any farm - when the law is ignored. It grows when cattle brokers move cattle without RFID tags. It swells when sale barns (only two in western Michigan have allegedly been cited) don't obey the law. If disdain for the law continues, interstate trade and TB-Free status in most of the Lower Peninsula could be washed away in one crushing wave.
Ultimately, the threatening tsunami could be thwarted by simple adherence to law. It's being ignored by some, however, because there hasn't been a single penalty imposed by MDARD for breaking it.
"If a few brokers, livestock auctions or farmers are breaking the law, they need to be held accountable," Birchmeier said. "Apparently, we don't have the will to enforce the law. We have inspectors at sale barns. Why haven't they fixed the problem?"
Since 2007, when the RFID requirement was made law, there have been 279 informal educational letters sent out, according to MDARD statistics obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request. There have been 23 formal violation letters sent, and there are 32 open investigations. But zero penalties have been imposed. There have been zero informal hearings and zero formal hearings, according to the statistics MDARD provided.
The maximum fine for each violation of the RFID requirement is $1,000, said James Averill, Michigan's new state veterinarian who has worked extensively with the TB situation since 2009.
The process for enforcement, Averill said, begins with an educational letter upon the first complaint that a farmer, broker or sale yard isn't complying with RFID requirements. Then there are hearings, followed by an automatic fine. That first move, the educational letter, seems to do the trick most of the time, he said.
"We feel confident that once people are educated, they comply," he said.
It's unknown at this time if the Saginaw farm had ever been through that first phase, but a cattle dealer allegedly involved in moving untagged, TB-infected calves from the farm has gotten a letter, according to MDARD Director Jamie Clover Adams.
"I think one of the dealers was not licensed to be a dealer, and was given a warning because of that," she said. "If that's true, we will move on to the next step. It appears that a dealer who worked with the index farm (the Saginaw dairy) was not following what he was supposed to do. We're going to start looking now to see if that is a widespread problem or just a few dealers."
Averill said it appears at this point that thumbing noses at the law is not widespread, but it doesn't take much to start a wave.
"Our cattle industry was supportive of moving to the best animal disease tracing system in the country, and that helped us move most of the Lower Peninsula to TB-free status," he said. "And now we have individuals, markets and dealers not following regulations. The potential is there that a few bad eggs have a major impact on the entire industry."
That impact has the potential to swamp the Lower Peninsula's TB status.
"We could be cut off," Averill said. "Having two TB herds in 48 months could result in loss of status, and we have three now. But we have a commitment from USDA that it won't discuss what will happen to our status until a fair amount of our trace investigation is complete. Then we'll see where we stand."
Averill said MDARD has a good working relationship with USDA at this time. USDA's relationship with farmers on this issue, however, is estranged and clouded in secrecy. Michigan Farm News requested an interview with USDA's highest veterinarian repeatedly for a week, and that request was finally flatly rejected without reason. An email to Sen. Debbie Stabenow about the issue also went unanswered.
While losing TB status is the worst-case scenario, and would lead to renewed whole-herd testing throughout the state, a restriction on trade to other states could come first.
Indiana, for example, refused to accept Michigan cattle in the early 2000s, but trade was restored at least in part because of the RFID system's ability to trace animals. Today, Indiana is taking a wait-and-see attitude while tracing animals from the Saginaw index herd.
"We have received a series of traceouts from animals associated with the (Saginaw) farm," said Dr. Bret Marsh, Indiana's state veterinarian. "We're giving Michigan's veterinarian (Dr. Averill) the chance to do epidemiological inspections, and we have no unique (trade) restrictions at this time. We want to wait for the inspections to be completed before we make a decision on trade restrictions."
Wisconsin's trade decision hinges largely on USDA's determination of TB status, said State Veterinarian Dr. Paul McGraw.
"Our rules only recognize the lowest TB status," he said. "Our trade decisions now are contingent on the state of origin requirements for electronic ID. If that goes away, we go back to the lowest status."
Michigan's lowest status is in the four-county Northeast Modified Accredited Zone, which Kala said has also been affected by MDARD's slow action.
"Michigan's TB program missed another date for application for free status in the MAZ (modified accredited zone) and the MAAZ (modified accredited advanced zone)," he said. "Farmers in northern Michigan have done everything we were asked to do, and MDARD missed the deadline for the Memorandum of Understanding for free status. Why?"
Averill said he takes full responsibility for missing that deadline.
"That's square on my shoulders" he said. "We didn't have the information to (USDA) by the April 1 deadline because of a situation among staff, but even though we were a couple weeks late, USDA got its part done. The Northeast is not being punished because of the Saginaw herd."
Kala said he understands mistakes can be made, but he's frustrated more by a failure to listen to the TB advisory committee.
Dr. Lana Keizer, a veterinarian, medical doctor and professor emeritus at Michigan State University's college of Medicine as well as a member of the TB advisory committee, agrees.
"The committee as originally configured was to be a small group the MDARD listened to," she said. "Now MDARD and the DNR give us updates, tell us what a wonderful job they're doing, and we're all supposed to believe it. But we know that taxpayers are paying huge money for this mostly because MDARD does not follow its own rules."
Kala said he has even been denied access to a conference call between USDA and MDARD on the issue, but Keizer said she doesn't believe USDA is hiding anything. It's just embarrassed, as is MDARD, that poor enforcement has contributed to TB traceout complications that will carry a heavy cost, she said.
The estimated cost, Averill said, is $1 million for the Saginaw herd traceout investigation. But that's nothing compared to what a loss of status and trade would cost.
"It's hard to argue that the system doesn't have a crack in it," Birchmeier said. "We still believe the RFID system is the best livestock tracing system we have, but if we don't use it effectively, it's worthless. And right now we obviously have people who believe they'll never get caught, so they ship cattle without the tags. They've put the entire state at risk."
On the positive side, Averill said because of RFID tags, trace investigations surrounding the index herd have moved much more quickly than they would have without them. And, he said, it's time there was transparency and adherence to law.
"As the state veterinarian, my obligation to the livestock industry is to be open, listen, have conversations and find common ground where we can," he said. "We need to work together."
Sometimes, when the wave gets too big, the boat gets swamped despite everyone rowing in the same direction.
"We'll get past this," Birchmeier said. "Mistakes have been made, but we can move on. We don't know yet if that ripple out yonder will become a swamper. If it does, we can't spend a single second on blame. That ship has sailed. We'll just have to be open and honest, follow the law and do what's right."