If the wheels of national ID turn any slower, the industry will be back to using mud and berry juice or whatever was used to ID cattle before fire made hot-iron branding possible.

The industry has been pressing USDA for answers about its National Animal Identification System (NAIS) since former Secretary of Agriculture Ann Veneman announced in January 2004, USDA's priority to build a national animal ID system.

Every time the industry presses for answers, an “imminent” report, budget or meeting is promised to add clarity. These steps take months, and when they finally do turn up, they under-deliver on what logical minds expected.

USDA's Draft Strategic Plan and Program Standards (www.usda.gov/nais) released May 5 are no exception.

Sure, USDA finally goes on record about its mandatory intent for NAIS — premises registration and animal ID by 2008; mandatory reporting of movement in commerce in 2009 — but that's not news. Even folks opposed to a mandatory program are less rankled by its necessity than how USDA has backed into it.

The timelines described above are interesting, much as a weather forecast is, but there are yet no rules on the books to make it so. Even if there were, there's no way to predict whether enough of the industry will be on the NAIS bandwagon by that time to make it plausible.

The only thing more irksome than USDA's transparent approach to making a mandate the industry's idea is that USDA substantiates its need with the opinions of 47 producers who shared their thoughts at one of USDA's listening sessions last summer. Perhaps as damning is only that many producers expressed an opinion.

These latest documents aptly rehash key concerns cattle producers have about NAIS — the mandatory issue, what it will cost and who will pay, and the confidentiality of producer data collected. But it offers no solutions.

For instance, on cost, William Hawks, USDA Undersecretary of Marketing and Regulatory Programs, explains, “I would like to point out the fact with the $18.8 [million] we (USDA) committed last year, the $33 million that is in our '05 budget and $33 million in the President's budget for '06, it's a pretty good commitment on our part.”

Compared to what? Figure 40 million head of cattle born each year at $2/tag, that's $80 million (less, since cattle only need to be identified once they enter commerce, but you get the gist). That's just cattle and tags.

What about other species? What about the infrastructure to house and transfer data, or costs of reporting movement data? Neither document mentions specific cost, just money USDA's already committed.

Of course, money committed is no commitment for the future. The document doesn't hint at a total estimated cost or what percentage USDA might pick up.

Nor does it offer guidance on how USDA will weld the system together so — once every head of stock or lifetime production group carries official NAIS ID, and every livestock premises is officially registered — the goal of tracing stock to all previous locations within 48 hours can be achieved.

Presumably, USDA expects to find such answers in the 29 projects it funded with states and tribes last year. Reports on those results are due in November.

Supposedly, USDA wants to find the solution through producer input, too. Ag Secretary Mike Johanns said, “We're proposing answers to some of the key questions about how we envision this system moving forward. Now, I'm eager to hear from farmers and ranchers so we can develop a final plan.”

That's swell, Mr. Secretary. After all the foot dragging though, by releasing the documents May 5 and demanding public comment by June 6, how bad do you want it?

The industry needs a mandatory national animal ID program. It needed it years ago, rather than by 2008 or some date beyond it. But the industry needs a system administered in such a way that meaningful answers can be uncovered in less time than it takes to find Noah's Ark.

That's why, even though USDA has offered such a narrow period for public comment, every producer should take the opportunity.

During the teleconference held as the documents were released, a reporter asked: “I wonder, gentlemen, have you reached the stage where you're just starting all over again on animal ID?”

How's that for clarity.

They haven't gone back to the beginning, but you don't have to look hard to see it.

To comment on USDA's strategic plan and standards, go to www.usda.gov/nais to submit comments electronically, or send an original and three copies of comments to: Docket No. 050-15-1, Regulatory Analysis and Development, PPD, APHIS, Station 3C71, 4700 River Rd., Unit 118, Riverdale, MD 20737-1238.