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
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
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
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
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
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.