Apparently USDA is going to make good on a promise made by one of the agency's officials six years ago.
At the time, John Wiemers, national ID director for USDA's Animal and Health Plant Inspection Service, told participants at the inaugural meeting of the National Institute for Animal Agriculture: “The private sector will have three years to develop livestock ID systems that work... At the end of three years, livestock ID will become mandatory unless the industry has evolved to where it is already doing it as a course of business.”
On April 6 this year, USDA unveiled the implementation for the National Animal Identification System (NAIS). During the press conference announcing the plan, Agriculture Secretary, Mike Johanns continued to sidestep the question about USDA's intent to make the system mandatory or keep it voluntary. Yet, the plan itself contains a contingency that calls for mandatory implementation if voluntary participation falls below aggressive goals.
Try this on for size: USDA's implementation calls for all livestock premises to be registered by January 1, 2009. By the same time, the plan also calls for 100 percent of all animals born in 2009 being individually identified with official NAIS registration and having animal movement information reported for 60 percent of all livestock in commerce that are less than a year old.
In order to accomplish these goals, USDA's Implementation Plan calls for having 25 percent of all premises registered by January 1, 2007 (70 percent by January 1, 2008) and having 35 percent of livestock born during the year identified individually in the case of cattle.
Keep in mind, only about 235,000 livestock premises have been registered so far out of the two million premises USDA estimates, about 10 percent. So, USDA first benchmark calls for more than doubling the number of premises registered within the next eight months.
As for getting individuals animals identified and registered, there is still no official database or databases approved by USDA to hold the data and be part of a database system that state and animal health officials will be able to query as needed.
Using the same system for reporting animal movement still is on the drawing board, too “By early 2007, USDA expects to have the technology in place, called the Animal Trace Processing System or commonly known as the metadata system, that will allow state and federal animal health officials to query the NAIS and private databases during a disease investigation,” explains USDA. “The animal tracking databases will record and store animal movement tracking information for livestock that state and federal animal health officials will query for animals of interest in a disease investigation.”
Oh yeah, just thinking about cattle in need of ID, about 33 million head are born each year. Depending on the data you look at, figure maybe half of them are currently identified with some kind of tag, meaning at least 16 million head or so will have to be identified by producers who don't routinely tag their calves.
Also understand that producer inertia for NAIS has slowed. As an example, Commissioners for the Texas Animal Health Commission (TAHC) tabled a meeting where they were to consider proposed regulations that would have made premises registration mandatory in that state. At the time, TAHC executive director and state veterinarian, Dr. Bob Hillman explained, “We are seeking from the U.S. Department of Agriculture clear direction on NAIS timelines for implementation.”
Next, some folks in Tennessee don't want anything to do with NAIS, period. A bill is floating around that state's House of Representatives that would make NAIS illegal there.
Rather than admit USDA has protracted implementation—which has stalled momentum and added to producer confusion—during the press conference, Johanns mentioned a couple of times, “Nothing this large and complex has ever been attempted in the world.”
Just Open Your Checkbook
Most vexing to many producers since USDA began talking about NAIS is the fact that they have yet to estimate a specific cost for the system or explain which segment of the industry will be responsible for paying for which components.
Sure, since the beginning there has been the general notion that it will be a partnership between federal and state government, and producers. But, USDA has never put it in writing. Look at the implementation plan (http://animalid.aphis.usda.gov/nais). You won't find a mention of cost anywhere. When pressed about cost during the press conference, Johanns merely said, “USDA has invested a rather substantial sum of money in the system to get it up and running…President Bush has been most supportive even placing funds into his own budget.”
Last I knew, the only money that USDA or any other government agency or official had was yours and mine in the form of tax revenue. So, about $85 million of tax money has been invested in NAIS so far, according to Johanns. Depending on your vantage point, about $85 million has been squandered when more than two years into the process the only visible progress is having about 10 percent of all livestock premises registered. Well, that, and miles of red tape and canyon-wide industry divisiveness over the issue.
Sure, there's behind the scenes stuff producers know about, like development of a federal NAIS data repository that was shelved at the twelfth hour, and a mountain of cooperative field trials and projects. If you'll remember, USDA said the results of these projects would guide NAIS implementation. Yet, here was Johanns announcing the implementation plan and stating that he had recently requested a final report on the projects. No report, but Houston we have lift-off.
So, odds say from here on out, producers will be paying the bill.
Getting Warned, then Being Told
As frustrating as being wedged into such a position is to some producers, it pales to the reasons the industry has ended up here.
First, it's not like the industry can say it was unaware of USDA's intent to implement a standardized, national animal identification system for the purposes of animal health monitoring and disease surveillance. Nor can the industry say USDA's willingness to make such a program mandatory is a surprise. USDA's refusal to be up front about it ever since Wiemer's welcome candor six years ago has been abominable, though.
Far as that goes, the opportunity for produces to provide input through the formal public comment process was an abysmal demonstration of industry apathy.
Next, folks involved in the U.S. Animal Identification Plan process that ultimately bore NAIS, or those who followed that process are justified in feeling betrayed by USDA. When the process began, USDA talked about wanting to be a partner with the industry. Their actions since the plan was developed tell a dichotomous story.
Still, at the press conference, Johanns emphasized, “We recognize that this represents one of the largest systematic changes ever faced by the livestock industry and we have welcomed suggestions from stakeholders to ensure that we continue to gain momentum. The plan we are releasing today will guide our efforts as we continue to work with our State and industry partners to implement a nationwide system.”
There's no question that the industry needs a national standardized system for animal ID. There's no question it has needed such a system and is currently behind much of the rest of the world in providing international consumers the type of assurances such a system can provide. However, there's also no question that USDA's approach to implementing an ID system has so far caused more confusion and producer distrust than it has engendered.
If USDA sticks to this implementation plan, the nation will wind up with an ID system, a mandatory one most likely.
Then again, if USDA sticks to the plan, it would be the first thing about NAIS that ended up going the way they said it would.