They came. They saw. They left.

Participants at the ID Info/Expo in August — the defacto national forum for developing and advancing a standardized national ID system — wanted answers about the National Animal Identification System (NAIS). They were disappointed.

USDA officials continued to evade some of producers' most rudimentary questions about NAIS, such as its cost, whether it will be mandatory and how and when the system will be implemented.

Meanwhile, livestock species remain scattered across the spectrum of engagement. On one end are species that haven't yet made specific recommendations to USDA about how NAIS should be implemented within their universe. At the other extreme is the Cattle Industry Working Group (CIWG), representing both beef and dairy cattle, which submitted recommendations months ago but has yet to receive USDA approval or denial.

Consequently, cattle producers have few NAIS facts to work with, plenty of speculation based on whether USDA accepts the CIWG recommendations and lots of unknowns.

Just the facts

What the industry does know is NAIS is designed to track livestock for animal-health purposes, with the ultimate aim to be able to track any head of livestock or any lifetime production group of livestock back to all previous locations of residence within 48 hours. The industry knows this is necessary because of the growing void left by successful animal disease eradication programs that hitherto had served as a sort of national ID program.

To accomplish this, NAIS revolves around three central components. First is premises registration, by which all livestock premises are to be registered with an official ID number. Next, all livestock entering commerce or being commingled with livestock from other premises are to be identified with official NAIS numbers — individually in the case of cattle or by lifetime production group in the case of swine. Finally, achieving 48-hour traceback means movement of NAIS-identified livestock must be reported as the stock move from one unique NAIS-identified premises to another.

Thus far, John Weimers, NAIS coordinator, says 300,000 livestock premises have been registered — about 21% of the livestock premises USDA estimates there are in the U.S. If you go by the most recent U.S. agriculture census, the percentage would be 15%. Presumably, USDA has come up with a lower estimate of premises, which accounts for double counting and whatnot. All 50 states, two U.S. territories and five Native American tribes have premises-registration systems in place.

Weimers also reports the Animal Identification Numbering Management System is in place. This is the system by which official NAIS numbers are assigned to manufacturers of official NAIS tags; two manufacturers have been approved so far.

USDA is also developing an Animal Trace Processing System, a mechanism by which state and federal animal-health officials can query private data systems for NAIS information. As of Aug. 1, USDA had approved one private animal-tracking database for NAIS.

Producers also know private data confidentiality has been protected by USDA in the past with the Privacy Act. Many believe housing data in private industry further guarantees its confidentiality. As well, some states have laws protecting animal-health data from the public, others are drawing up laws and there's a national movement to enact such a law federally.

There are other NAIS details at http://animalid.aphis.usda.gov, but those are the highlights.

By and large, cattle producers continue to support the need for a national ID system for the purposes of animal-health surveillance and livestock-health monitoring. In a BEEF magazine poll last June, 76% of respondents said a national ID system was necessary, for the stated purposes of NAIS; 63% said such a system should be mandatory. BEEF conducted a similar survey of readers last October: 69% said a national system was necessary; 55% thought it should be mandatory.

In an informal poll conducted by the National Institute of Animal Agriculture (NIAA) at the recent ID Info/Expo, 78% of respondents said a national system should be mandatory, thereby implying a system is needed; only 3% saw no need for a national ID program. However, 81% of respondents also felt NAIS progress was lagging expectations, and 73% believed NAIS implementation will fall short of its timeline goals.

USDA Secretary Mike Johanns told folks at the ID Info-Expo he's “pleased with the progress that's been made,” and stressed national ID remains one of his priorities. However, acknowledging growing industry unrest concerning NAIS progress, Johanns urged, “Don't let nay-sayers convince you we should minimize what you've accomplished.”

Each livestock species is represented by an appointed working group that's supposed to provide USDA with recommendations about how NAIS should be implemented relative to that species.

The CIWG, which represents both beef and dairy cattle interests, continues to wait for USDA to take action on its recommendations (see “Hopeful facts”).

Anybody's guess

All these CIWG recommendations continue as speculation, however, until USDA takes official action on them. For that matter, the timeline for NAIS implementation remains anybody's guess. USDA's implementation plan calls for having all livestock premises registered by early 2009, along with all livestock born that year NAIS-identified, and 60% of the animal-movement data reported for livestock in commerce and less than one year of age.

At the ID Info/Expo, Johanns downplayed these benchmarks into more suggestions than targets. But, he did say, “There will come a day when we will have to make a decision about how to get enough registered (livestock and premises identified) to have effective trace-back.”

That leaves plenty of confusion and little incentive for producers to participate unless they live in a handful of states already requiring premises ID or animal ID. Yes, there's a lot of chatter about market-driven incentives for the kinds of assurances ID enables, but that's separate from ID for animal-health purposes.

According to Johanns, “We'll be issuing a comprehensive document in the next few months we hope will answer questions about what NAIS is and isn't.” If so, producers may finally be privy to the answers they've wanted since the beginning. Few are placing heavy wagers on the possibility, though.

In the meantime, figuring out how to keep the NAIS process moving forward is a murky proposition. Cattle-industry groups remain engaged, and the U.S. Animal Health Association is working with USDA to craft a process for taking NAIS the next step. But like NAIS itself, nothing is clear.

Perhaps, Scott Stuart, NIAA chairman of the board, sums it up best: “Our shrinking world, due to rapid travel and international commerce, makes the probability of a foreign animal disease infecting our nation's animals just that much more likely. NAIS, in whatever form it finally takes, is something we must have… Predicting animal-disease emergencies is like predicting hurricanes, earthquakes and other calamities: It isn't a question of if, but when.”

Hopeful facts

Here are the guiding principles the Cattle Industry Working Group submitted to USDA for review:

  • The U.S. Animal Identification Program (USAIP) is endorsed as the uniform national animal ID plan that will be implemented as the National Animal identification System (NAIS).

  • NAIS will be conducted through cooperative agreements involving USDA/APHIS, state animal-health authorities, tribal nations and the U.S. cattle industry.

  • Radio-frequency ID ear tags will be the technology used to individually ID cattle.

  • Producers' data/information must be kept confidential and exempt from current Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requirements. This includes a FOIA exemption to block data from passing among varied governmental agencies.

  • Only approved animal-health authorities at the federal and state level will have access to the NAIS information system.

  • Only information essential to the enhancement of animal-disease surveillance and monitoring shall be stored in any state or federally managed database under the NAIS.

  • Events that will trigger access to the data system must be characterized as a regulatory need to accommodate disease trace-back/trace-forward under any one of the following:

    1. A confirmed positive test for List A diseases.

    2. The declaration of an animal disease emergency by the USDA Secretary.

    3. Program diseases (brucellosis, tuberculosis, etc.) trace-back to determine the origin of infection.

  • Producers won't bear the full cost of establishing or maintaining the national animal ID system.

  • USDA/APHIS is encouraged to thoroughly investigate opportunities for integrating state brand inspection with the NAIS.

  • NAIS implementation will be directed by the establishment of Uniform Methods and Rules.

  • An extensive industry education effort must be jointly organized and implemented by state, tribal and federal health authorities; livestock organizations; industry quality-assurance programs; allied industry; university Extension; and others.