Scrapie Tags – Simple Mystery

Does every goat in Virginia need a Scrapie tag?

Legally, no.  But if you look at Virginia Administrative Code 2VAC5-206-20, Identification of Sheep and Goats in Commerce, you’ll discover legalese that is anything but clear.

The Virginia code lists eight categories of sheep and goats that must be identified with Scrapie tags, and it lists seven categories of sheep and goats that are not required to be tagged.  There are four exemptions to the must-be-tagged list, and one exemption to the don’t-have-to-be-tagged list.  Some criteria for determining if a goat should be tagged are so complex that a producer literally cannot make the determination, and must contact the state for guidance.

As a result, there’s often no consensus among producers – especially between veteran producers and new producers – about the exact requirements for tagging goats.

It’s important to know that Scrapie is an always-fatal, debilitating disease unique to sheep and goats.  It’s similar to Mad Cow, and it costs U.S. producers $20 to $25 million each year.  The disease has severely affected domestic and international trade in sheep and sheep-byproducts, which means it indirectly affects every sheep and goat producer in the U.S.

To learn more about the disease itself, there’s a short, informative article in The Bleat, the July newsletter of the Southern Virginia Meat Goat Association (www.svmga.org/newsletters).  For more detailed information, go to http://www.aphis.usda.gov/animal_health/animal_diseases/scrapie/.

So, why is the code so complex?

Virginia is required to comply with the minimum standards of the USDA’s National Scrapie Eradication Program.  In 2007, new Virginia regulations were proposed to meet the USDA’s minimum standards.  The result is a primer on what happens when science meets politics.

The Virginia Joint Commission on Administrative Rules met January 8, 2008 to discuss, among other things, the proposed regulations for Scrapie eradication.  State legislators met with heavy resistance from the Virginia Independent Consumers and Farmers Association.  The meeting summary indicates that Wayne Bolton, Vice-President of VICFA told the commission that Scrapie does not exist in Virginia and that he’s opposed to all regulations, not just the ones proposed.

Still, the proposals became law in 2008.  Dr. Thach Winslow, Regional Veterinary Supervisor and Designated State Scrapie Epidemiologist explained that the resultant code is a very scientifically based program that also attempts not to over-regulate.

“It’s very accurate and very fair,” Winslow said.  “It’s also very hard to follow and understand.”

Unlike most livestock diseases, Scrapie takes years to manifest in sheep and goats.  Therefore, the tags are not used primarily to determine who owned the animal last or where it’s been in the past week or so.  The most important function of the Scrapie tag is to determine the animal’s flock of origin, i.e. where it was born, gave birth or used for breeding.  For all male animals the flock of origin is always the flock of birth.

Flock of origin is everything in Scrapie eradication.  A goat can be sold 10 times and moved all over the country, but if it tests positive for Scrapie, officials need to know where it originally came from.  Therefore, the Scrapie tag should always reflect the flock of origin.

Dr. Winslow said that if evaluated properly, well over 90 percent of sheep and goats taken to livestock markets legally require tagging.  And since it’s too much trouble to evaluate each animal to determine which ones need tags, most Virginia livestock markets require all sheep and goats to be tagged.  Many buyers and destination states also demand tagging.

What do you do if you bought breeding stock that isn’t tagged?

“Technically, because they are being sold as breeding stock, they are required to be tagged before they are sold,” Winslow said.  “The purist would say that that animal should not be purchased.”

Likewise, if an animal you’ve purchased with a tag somehow loses that tag, you should contact the original flock owner to get another tag.  But Winslow acknowledges that strict interpretation of regulations can backfire and result in less compliance.  He suggests a more practical solution: In the event an animal in your flock needs a tag for any reason, the flock owner should put one of their tags on the animal and record all the information, including where and when it was originally purchased as well as the date tagged and why.

“If these records are kept, then in the event of a trace, the flock owner will be contacted and that information can be provided to continue the search,” Winslow said.  “We get what we need in a very practical way.”

Winslow is quick to reiterate that no breeding stock should be purchased without Scrapie tags, and offers this solution only for producers who have mistakenly bought untagged breeding stock.  He also points out that livestock markets, licensed dealers and veterinarians have the authority to issue Scrapie tags for animals that come to them untagged.  These issuers are required to determine the flock of origin and keep records of that information for five years.

Animals purchased with a Scrapie tag should not be re-tagged.

“Animals are only permitted to have one Scrapie tag and it’s illegal to remove it,” Winslow said.

Scrapie is not a mythical bugaboo.  It exists and it’s dangerous.  The USDA National Scrapie Eradication Program Fiscal Year 2009 Report indicates that Virginia did discover a Scrapie infected flock in the 2009 fiscal year.  The report also states that the flock was “released,” meaning all infected animals were destroyed and the flock is being monitored, yet appears Scrapie-free.

Winslow confirmed the USDA report and points out that the infected animals came to Virginia and did not originate in Virginia.

“To my knowledge we don’t [currently] have any animals alive in Virginia with Scrapie,” Winslow said.  “Without the Scrapie program there would be animals born in Virginia with Scrapie.”

Officials charged with eradicating Scrapie would prefer a simple, “tag all sheep and goats” law.  The tags are free to any producer and they take only seconds to apply.  Records must be kept for five years, but such information is easily entered and kept on a personal computer.  There’s no reason not to participate.  Besides, it’s the law.

So, what’s the simple answer to the complex question?  Tag all goats at the flock of origin.  You birth it, you tag it.  Simple.  Mystery solved.

Alan Keck

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