"Much work has been done over the past five years to engage producers in developing an animal identification system that they could support," USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack said last week. "However, many of the issues and concerns initially raised by producers, such as the cost, impact on small farmers, privacy and confidentiality and liability, continue to cause debate. In the spirit of President Obama's call for transparency in government, now is the time to have frank and open conversations about the National Animal Identification System (NAIS). We need to work collaboratively to resolve concerns and move forward with animal traceability."

Vilsack made the statement at a roundtable discussion that USDA says represented, “a variety of stakeholders representing the full spectrum of views on NAIS.” The event was supposed to launch a listening tour to gather feedback and input that will assist Vilsack in making decisions about the future direction of animal ID and traceability in the U.S.

Been there, done it, over and over again.

Until USDA diluted, convoluted and made a mockery of it, the industry had a workable ID plan developed by a wide-ranging volunteer committee of more than 150 industry representatives. These folks poured hours and miles into a multi-year development process, at the behest of USDA. That plan was based around voluntary participation that if successful would create the 48-hour traceback envisioned by a mandatory program (more later). Though imperfect and still needing answers to some details, at the time there was a collective momentum building within the overall livestock industry to achieve such a system with the developed plan.

Then came USDA taking that plan and transforming it into something unintended by many of the folks involved in the process, and into something that much of the livestock industry has rightfully been leery of supporting.

Then came the special-interest groups and individuals from within each livestock industry segment promoting their own technologies and programs as the “answer.”

Keep in mind, none of what was talked about then or now has anything to do with animal ID as an end in itself, or it shouldn’t; it’s about the ability to trace livestock throughout the system quickly and accurately, in the name of safeguarding the health of the nation’s livestock herds.

If producers and/or the government want the capability of 48-hour traceback to individual livestock, in the name of monitoring the health of the national herds and containing the outbreak of virulent disease, then standardized livestock animal ID for individual livestock is necessary; or in some cases of all-in, all-out lifetime production, ID for individual groups of livestock. That system has to be mandatory or it must foster voluntary participation at levels akin to those of a mandatory system.

If the industry and/or government have no desire for 48-hour traceback for the animal-health reasons cited earlier, then there is no reason for them to jabber about a national animal ID system one way or the other.

If the upcoming USDA listening sessions are similar to those following development of the original plan, they will be an exercise in futility. It will be another case of Congressional representatives who know little to nothing about the livestock business, let alone agriculture, listening to the discussion and then going off to be led by whatever special-interest groups happen to be in vogue and handy at the time.

Hopefully, all involved will at least keep the focus on traceback rather than ID itself.