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HUNTIN' DAYLIGHT -- NATIONAL I.D. FACTS AND FICTION

by: Wes Ishmael

Sorting through the supposed reality of an emerging National Animal Identification System (NAIS) is a whole lot like snipe hunting: it's supposed to be out there somewhere, but danged if you can get your arms wrapped around it.

Part of the puzzlement stems from the fact that NAIS—even under ideal circumstances, which hasn't been the case—would still be in its nascent stages when folks are trying to learn their way through it.

Similarly, the sheer volume and complexity of the beef business means that as straightforward as the notion is to ID and track livestock, accomplishing that is fraught with logistical potholes. Throw in the fact that USDA is trying to accomplish NAIS across all species at the same time and the complexity is magnified.

Mostly, though, USDA continues to hinder the progress of the very system it champions by steadfastly dancing around the most prominent questions that producers have. If you ever doubted that, all you had to do was meander through the halls and meetings of the recent ID/Info Expo hosted by the National Institute of Animal Agriculture in Kansas City.

Resolve for a system of identification for the sole purpose of animal health monitoring and animal disease control remains among those who have been most involved in shepherding the idea to its current state. In an informal survey of the approximately 600 meeting participants, 78 percent believe such a system is so imperative to protecting the livestock industry that it should be made mandatory.

Frustration with USDA hung heavier than a wool horse blanket in an icy creek, though. In that same survey 81 percent said that NAIS progress is running behind expectations.

     

The Answer Is…No Answer

This frustration is best reflected by the fact that USDA has yet to address the possibility of a mandatory program head-on. At the meeting Secretary of Agriculture Mike Johanns repeatedly dodged questions about whether USDA's intent was to make and maintain NAIS as voluntary or mandatory program. He stressed that it is a voluntary program today and that he believes a voluntary program is preferable. Yet, USDA's NAIS Implementation Plan (http://animalid.aphis.usda.gov/nais) issued in April states in black and white that adopting mandatory regulations is a contingency plan for producer participation.

Johanns also demurs from questions aimed at assessing what level of voluntary participation is required for effective animal health trace-back.

Similarly, Johanns will not provide an answer about the cost of the system, other than alluding to the $83 million USDA has already poured into it. One reason for that may be the fact that no such estimate exists, despite repeated requests from the industry for a cost-benefit analysis.

In a separate one-on-one interview, Chief Veterinary Officer, John Clifford, was more specific, implying that producers will be responsible for purchasing and applying NAIS tags; he pointed out no state is currently charging producers to register their premises with NAIS, which is a prerequisite to obtaining official NAIS tags.

On the issue of money, there was no public mention of the common knowledge that the General Accounting Office is currently investigating NAIS at the bequest of a senator. Nor was any mention made of the fact that there remains some question about whether or not the $33 million in federal dollars earmarked for NAIS next year will be frozen until specific answers are provided to Congress, as was approved in one of the appropriation bill that awaits conferencing.

Other key questions still unanswered:

Who guarantees confidentiality? For obvious reasons producers are unlikely to provide any NAIS data if they believe there is a chance it could be accessed by anyone other than state and federal animal health officials. Johanns said, “I agree with livestock producers who believe information about your livestock is your business, period.”

Again, in a separate interview, Clifford was more specific. He explains USDA has protected producer information from prying eyes and the Freedom of Information Act via the Privacy Act. However, state animal health officials and others continue to emphasize the need for legislation at both levels aimed at protecting NAIS data, specifically.

What about working group recommendations? Each livestock species devised its own working group to make NAIS recommendations to the Secretary of Agriculture. Those from the Cattle Industry Working Group were submitted months ago and have yet to receive approval or denial from USDA. That means, anything beyond premises registration remains speculation. In turn, that means few producers are likely to begin tagging cattle with NAIS tags until species-specific recommendations are adopted.

Is it all for all and one for all? Cattle and swine are more advanced in NAIS development than any of the others. Some other species are just now getting started, while some others continue to dig their feet in against elements of the program. It's difficult to imagine cattle producers embracing a program like NAIS if other species are allowed to sit on the sidelines.

Do you know what you're talking about? The cooperative effort between the livestock industry and the state and federal animal health officials charged with protecting those industries emphasized the need for a national system for animal health purposes. Yet, Johanns continues to harp on his belief that the market will drive NAIS adoption, that there are already economic incentives in the domestic and international markets to provide ID.

It's true that in isolated circumstances a few producers are able to command a higher price for source verification or other process verification tied to ID. Even if the economic incentives were high and widespread, NAIS isn't about those things. It's about the nation's ability to better protect its livestock industry, period.

As Clifford stressed, “We need this type of program for state and federal animal health authorities to be able to effectively control and eradicate diseases, whether it's a Foreign Animal Disease, current program diseases or new emerging diseases that may be on the forefront tomorrow.”

Yesterday Was Too Late

Indeed. None of the industry's frustration is to say that a national system for the sole purpose of animal health monitoring and animal disease control is superfluous. The industry needs it and has needed it. In fact, relative to risk, you can argue that the need grows with every new case of BSE confirmed in North America and every foiled terrorist plot aimed at western democracies. Keep in mind that agriculture is one of a handful of this nation's critical infrastructures which also happen to be among the most enticing terrorist targets.

Instead, all of this is to say that producers need to lobby their congressional and organizational representatives to demand that USDA start providing specific answers to the necessary questions they're asking about NAIS.

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