Imagine, within 48 hours, being able to trace any head of livestock in the U.S. back to all of the places it resided during its production life. That's the goal of the National Animal Identification System (NAIS).

The need for such a system designed for disease surveillance and animal health monitoring is indisputable. Anybody else ever wonder what happened to the import-mates of the Canadian-born, BSE-infected cow that could never be tracked down?

So, folks can quibble and wring their hands over how NAIS gets done, but most agree it must be accomplished.

Now, imagine that you can trace any head of livestock back to the ranch of origin within 48 hours, but the necessary data to do so can only be accessed for the purposes of animal disease surveillance and animal health monitoring. While that sounds like repetition, it bears pondering.

As should be the case, NAIS data will presumably only be accessible to state and animal health officials in the name of finding disease, containing it and the like. That means none of the data — not the animal movement data, not the animal's age if submitted, not the animal's ID — can be accessed for other purposes.

Consequently, the industry with NAIS will still be a whole lot like the industry without it when it comes to its widespread inability to comply with market and regulatory requirements that rely on a common, standardized ID system.

With NAIS, producers might use official NAIS numbers in their daily management, though that's not likely unless it's an electronic tag since it's a 15-digit alpha-numeric number. They might enlist a private data management company to house production data, along with the essential information they send on to NAIS, but there still will be no common, standard system for purposes other than animal health monitoring.

Recent negotiations to secure resumption of beef exports to Japan serve as a prime example. Supposedly, the Japanese want assurance that the beef they buy comes from fed animals 20 months old or younger. Assuming USDA doesn't find a way to grade cattle on the harvest chain as age-compliant (possibly, even if they do), verification will continue to rest on production records tied to individual identity. Even though cattle age is an optional piece of data that producers will be able to submit to the NAIS database, and even if it were required, this information can only be used for animal disease surveillance and monitoring, not for verifying age in the marketplace.

The crux of all of this is that the industry has fought long and hard to develop a national animal ID system to protect the health of the national herd, one that will be as easy, cheap and accurate for producers to use as possible. But the successful, arduous strides taken in the effort seem to have lulled some into a false sense of security that NAIS will be able to serve all ID-related needs. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Even with NAIS, producers are still left without a common, standardized ID system that can be used to verify requirements demanded from the marketplace and for complying with regulations that have nothing to do with animal health surveillance and disease monitoring.

As is usual, this challenge may be the opportunity.

Arguably, not many producers are going to sign up for NAIS unless forced. That means widespread participation will ultimately be mandated through regulation or economic disincentive (i.e., folks not buying cattle or severely discounting those without NAIS tags). Or, heaven forbid, a positive economic incentive could drive it.

Obviously, vertically coordinated systems have found value in identifying and tracking cattle for the assurance and product differentiation opportunities provided by it and other value-added enhancements. But, in the great scheme of things, the percentage of cattle flowing through such systems is still relatively small. Plus, the various systems, while perhaps sharing some common data hardware and data managers, maintain their own proprietary databases.

In addition, a growing number of producers are finding economic advantage using individual ID to manage cattle on a more individual basis. Here again, such producers are in the minority and are using a variety of tagging schemes, data collectors and database managers to accomplish their goals.

For purposes beyond animal disease surveillance and animal health monitoring, how then can the industry piggyback upon the NAIS infrastructure, replicate it, or develop a series of smaller systems large enough to cost-effectively accommodate the majority of cattle moving through the marketplace?

If you've got the answer, by all means, share it. At the very least, it's past time to start talking about it.