USDA effectively and quietly knocked the National Animal Identification System (NAIS) in the head last Wednesday. It did so with the unheralded publication of the "NAIS User Guide," which replaces all former NAIS draft documents. This document, for the first time, emphasizes NAIS as a voluntary program rather than as a steppingstone to a mandatory one.

In fact, at the very beginning, the guide explains, "USDA is not requiring participation in the program. NAIS can help producers protect the health and marketability of their animals - but the choice to participate is theirs."

Late last month at a community outreach event in Kansas City, Chuck Conner, USDA Deputy Secretary, and Bruce Knight, USDA Under Secretary for Marketing and Regulatory Programs, paved the way for the agency's back-pedaling.

"Since we've had some confusion on this, we need to be as clear as we can be. This is 'voluntary' with a capital V. Not a currently voluntary, then maybe a mandatory system. This is a permanently voluntary system at the federal level," Conner said.

"We're making it crystal clear that NAIS is voluntary - no ifs, ands or buts," explained Knight. "Farmers can choose to register their premises. They can choose to participate in individual animal or group identification. And they can opt to be part of tracking. Or not."

The guide goes on to explain, "Participation in NAIS is voluntary at the federal level. Under our current authorities, USDA could make the NAIS mandatory, but we are choosing not to do so - again, participation in every component of NAIS is voluntary at the federal level. The NAIS does not need to be mandatory to be effective; we believe the goals of the system can be achieved with a voluntary program. As producers become increasingly aware of the benefits of the NAIS and the level of voluntary participation grows, there will only be less need to make the program mandatory."

Absent from the "NAIS User Guide" are the suggested timelines and benchmarks for achieving an effective level of producer participation. Instead, USDA emphasizes its belief that market demands will provide the necessary incentive for participation.

That's possible, though it hasn't been the case, thus far. It's hard to imagine, too, the need commerce will see for a system cohesive and coordinated enough to provide the industry-wide, 48-hour trace-back NAIS was designed to provide. Consequently, the only real incentive for animal ID remains to be the value individual producers see in it for management purposes.

So, it seems NAIS is over, at least for the tenure of the current administration.

You can find the complete "NAIS User Guide" at animalid.aphis.usda.gov/nais/naislibrary/documents/instructions_guidelines/NAIS-UserGuide.pdf.

Though NAIS has apparently become road-kill on history's highway, there's no question the market is paying for verification of certain practices and product attributes that must be substantiated via individual animal ID.

For example, it seems everyone is chattering about source and age verification, and more recently Non-Hormone Treated Cattle (NHTC) for the European Union.

Premiums for age -- specifically for cattle 20 months of age and younger and eligible for export to Japan -- have been running $3-$4/cwt. on feeders and $2-$3/cwt. on fed cattle, according to Bill Mies, eMerge Interactive vice president of national accounts.

That's when premiums are available, though. According to Mark Spire, Schering-Plough Animal Health bovine technical services manager, sources for age premiums are dwindling. He explains packers are typically able to meet still-paltry Japanese demand by pulling from their regular purchases.

Both of the gentlemen visited with BEEF recently about the differences and similarities between Quality Systems Assessment programs (QSAs) and Process Verified Programs (PVPs). Both are USDA programs used to verify source, age and other cattle attributes.

"The biggest misunderstanding in the country, and I think one that has slowed adoption of source and age verification, is some mistakenly think these are steps in a national animal ID program," explains Mies. "They're amazed to discover these (QSAs and PVPs) are private-industry programs aimed at getting them more money for their cattle."

Spire emphasizes there are lots of folks, including government officials, who continue to wrap NAIS - and its purpose for national animal disease surveillance and animal health monitoring - with animal ID needed for market-driven programs such as QSA and PVP. "This confusion has delayed the widespread adoption of both types of USDA programs," he says.

You can explore QSAs and PVPs in more detail in the upcoming December issue of BEEF.
-- Wes Ishmael, BEEF Stocker Trends newsletter