Bill Hawks, USDA Undersecretary for Marketing and Regulatory Programs, had two messages for attendees of the National Institute for Animal Ag (NIAA) annual meeting in St. Paul, MN, yesterday. Regarding the National Animal Identification System (NAIS) currently under development and designed to provide 48-track back on any livestock animal in the U.S. in the event of an animal health or food safety emergency, Hawks said:

"First, we will protect confidentiality of data (collected via the NAIS system). There is no question about that."

He added that USDA submitted to Congress last fall an Administration bill to address the confidentiality issue, which is as yet un-introduced.

"I would ask you, as people interested in this, to help us get that legislation passed," he said.

"Second, I will also stand here and tell you that January of 2009 is our target date to have a mandatory system in place. But I will also tell you that (it will not go mandatory) until we get this confidentiality issue addressed," he added.

Hawks said 45 states and five tribes now have premises registration systems in place.

"I think we've moved a long way in the last year, particularly the last few months. We're headed in the right direction. And, now that premises registration is getting pretty well in place, we're going to be moving to the AIN (animal identification numbers) in very short order."

Hawks reported that "in the very, very near future," USDA will publish in the Federal Register its Draft Strategic Plan on NAIS, as a basis for feedback and discussion. In addition, USDA also will "very soon" be publishing its Draft Program Standards, which Hawks says, "will put meat on the bones" of the plan.

"We are continuing to move forward but we cannot move forward without your continued support and participation," Hawks told attendees. "We're committed to working with every sector of the industry to make sure the things we do are cost effective, functional and that we will protect the confidentiality of that data."