Achieving the ultimate goal of the nation's fledgling National Animal Identification System (NAIS) — 48-hour traceback — requires three key ingredients.

  • First, all premises must be identified with standardized, unique ID numbers.

  • Next, all livestock must be identified individually or as lifetime production groups with unique and standardized ID numbers.

  • Finally, the whereabouts of these uniquely identified animals must be reported as they move from one uniquely identified premises to the next.

The first of these requirements is in progress. The second is supposed to be operational soon. The third is mired in an intense industry debate.

In fact, the line of dissent couldn't be drawn much clearer.

On one side you have USDA, which decided to privatize the NAIS animal movement database. Standing shoulder-to-shoulder with that agency is the National Cattlemen's Beef Association (NCBA), which lobbied for privatization of the database.

Primarily, supporters of the private database route believe data submitted by producers would be more insulated from the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) than if it's part of a public database.

“This is an animal health issue. NAIS is designed to protect the nation's livestock herd, thereby protecting the livelihood of individual producers,” says Allen Bright, NCBA coordinator of animal ID programs. “However, the ability of the private sector to hold its own data and protect it from unwarranted government intrusion can't be overstated.”

Private database support thin

On the other side is much of the rest of the livestock industry, including the Cattle Industry Working Group (CIWG), which supports the notion of USDA building, maintaining and paying for the animal movement database. The CIWG is comprised of 75 individuals representing all segments of the beef and dairy industries, from producers and market operators, to processors and state animal health officials.

By way of background, since NAIS was established in April 2004, USDA repeatedly stressed it would build, maintain and pay for the animal movement database. It abruptly switched gears in August. Besides opting for a privatized system — which also places the cost of it squarely on the shoulders of industry — USDA thickened the confusion by specifying that a consortium representing all sectors impacted by NAIS must develop this private database.

Last month, CIWG recommended the U.S. Animal Health Association (USAHA) play a pivotal role in facilitating and implementing the NAIS animal-tracking database as outlined in the initial NAIS plan. USAHA members subsequently passed a resolution urging USDA's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) to implement the federal animal-tracking database it originally proposed.

“Clearly, there isn't broad support within the livestock industry for a privatized database,” says Glenn Slack, president and CEO of the National Institute of Animal Agriculture (NIAA). He cites a recent NIAA survey indicating a majority opposes USDA's decision. Slack also says most producers believe the only sure way to protect data from FOIA is to enact legislation to that point. Thus, he explains, most don't believe confidentiality is any more of a concern with a public database than a private one.

Of the approximately 600 public comments USDA received to its NAIS Draft Strategic Plan and Standards, 54% support a private database; 64% of cattle producers. If you consider not only producers, a majority of comments (48%) were in favor of a public database.

Moreover, there's a fair bit of consternation among supporters of the public database that USDA had already invested taxpayer money in building the database — to the point of near completion, according to several anonymous sources — then scrapped it.

“The Secretary of Agriculture's decision to privatize the animal movement database for NAIS has increased confusion, frustration and disappointment in the industry,” says Gary Wilson, CIWG co-chairman.

As far as Wilson is concerned, USDA's decision speaks to a lack of awareness about how state health officials track disease in animals. He explains achieving the 48-hour trace-back goal of NAIS requires that state and federal animal health officials have immediate access to animal movement data. Wilson believes this is most likely and most effectively administered with a single database defined by a single set of procedures, protocols and standards.

In the meantime, NCBA has maintained its efforts to build an animal movement database and recruit an industry consortium in favor of it.

“The direction of NCBA is determined by our grassroots membership, not by our opposition,” Bright says. “NCBA will continue to move ahead with the direction set by our members.”

USAHA is in opposition

The USAHA resolution represents such opposition. Whether USDA will acquiesce and reconsider its decision is anyone's guess. If it doesn't, Wilson believes a consortium already exists to take on the chores of building and maintaining the database.

“The Food Animal Identification Task Force was assembled in 2002 with the common goal of enhancing animal disease surveillance and monitoring through 48-hour traceability,” Wilson explains. “It's a multi-species group representing all segments of the livestock industry. It includes more than 600 individuals and 70 industry organizations. I don't know of any similar collective effort by the livestock industry in the history of USDA. It makes no sense to suggest a new consortium needs to be formed after this one developed and advanced the plan that became NAIS.”

Further, if USDA sticks to its privatization decision, Wilson believes producers should lobby for a choice that includes the nearly completed USDA database.

“Producers should contact the Senate and House Agriculture Committees and the office of the Secretary of Agriculture and ask that they be given a choice by granting USDA/APHIS permission to complete the national animal movement database proposed in the NAIS plan,” Wilson says. “With that choice, cost-conscious producers could report NAIS animal movement data to their respective state animal health authorities for little or no cost.

“Producers more concerned about confidentiality could pay to construct, maintain and report animal movements to a privatized animal movement database,” he continues. “Providing producers with a choice would increase NAIS participation, which would enhance animal disease surveillance, monitoring and control.”

Slack agrees that solving the current debate probably rests somewhere between the opposing sides.

“The idea of multiple databases accessed by animal health officials through a single portal, as an example, should be explored,” he says. “Addressing the debate as a purely black and white issue between private and public databases really gets us away from the purpose of NAIS.”