Most agree on the destination, but there's no consensus on the route, meaning there's no telling how long the trip will take. But, after scraping together a little money — far less than what estimates say it will take — the journey is underway.

“While many livestock species in the U.S. can be identified through a variety of systems, a verifiable system of national animal ID will enhance our efforts to respond to intentionally or unintentionally introduced animal disease outbreaks more quickly and effectively,” says Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman.

Specifically, the goal of the program is to be able to track any animal suspected of being exposed to a foreign animal disease to its previous locations within 48 hours.

Ever since Veneman's December announcement that developing such a system was a priority, the beef industry has awaited USDA's plans. Coming a few months after the U.S. Animal Identification Plan (USAIP) was adopted by the U.S. Animal Health Association as a work in progress — then deferred to species-specific working groups to hash out implementation details — logic hinted USDA would adopt USAIP and get the wheels turning.

Instead, after political wrangling and mounting confusion, it wasn't until April 27 that we finally glimpsed USDA's intent for what's now dubbed the National Animal Identification System (NAIS). It's a glimpse that serves up as many questions as answers.

According to Veneman, $18.8 million that USDA received from the Commodity Credit Corporation in April will be used to fund the first of a three-phase implementation plan:

  • Phase I

    USDA stated, “Evaluate current federally-funded animal ID systems and determine which system(s) should be used for NAIS; continue dialogue with producers and stakeholders about what is needed; identify staffing needs; develop any regulatory and legislative proposals needed for implementing the system.”

    Current federally-funded animal ID programs include databases and networks used by states for livestock disease eradication, as well as ongoing USDA-funded pilot projects, such as Wisconsin's Farm Animal Identification Records project.

  • Phase II

    “Implementation of the selected animal ID system(s) at regional levels for one or more selected species; continue industry dialogue and education; address regulatory needs and work with Congress on any required legislation,” USDA stated.

    Bill Hawks, USDA undersecretary for marketing and regulatory programs, says USDA has the authority under the Animal Health Protection Act to mandate national ID if it deems it necessary.

  • Phase III

    USDA stated, “Scale up the selected animal ID system(s) to a national level.”

Premises ID Comes First

“The initial phase will be evaluating the systems we've already invested in to determine those we can scale up and possibly use for the premises allocator and premises repository,” Hawks says.

The terms “premises allocator” and “premises repository” are worth learning. The first is the system by which unique premises (location of the operation) ID numbers will be issued to states, which, in turn, will issue them to producers in that state. The latter is the database that will house which premises ID number belongs to which premises location and producer.

All told, 100 million animals could be in the NAIS database when the system is fully functional, says Ron DeHaven, USDA Animal Plant Health Information Services administrator. He explains the vision is for premises and animal ID information gathered from producers at the ranch or point of sale to be funneled into state databases, which then relay necessary information to the national system.

Bottom line, since NAIS's goal is 48-hour livestock trace-back, premises ID is the foundation required before issuing animal IDs, which will ultimately be tied to premises ID.

“We hope to be issuing premises IDs later this year,” Hawks says. “Hopefully, shortly thereafter, we will be able to issue individual animal IDs.”

USDA is aiming to get premises ID off the ground in 2004. With $18.8 million divvied among evaluating current state ID systems, producer education and developing the data infrastructure to house the information USDA will require, there's no telling how far off the ground the program will get. Likewise, $33 million earmarked for national ID in the 2005 federal budget falls far short of the $70.8 million the USAIP (www.usaip.info) estimates as the second-year cost of the program; $98.3 million is the estimated cost for the third year and so on.

Hawks does point out, “It is our expectation that this [NAIS] will be a cooperative project that the U.S. government is not and should not pay for every bit of.”

That's consistent with the thoughts of the National Cattlemen's Beef Association (NCBA). At a U.S. House Ag Committee field hearing on animal ID in March, NCBA president Jan Lyons said one approach could be for the federal government to cover costs of establishment and approval of standards, partnering with state governments on infrastructure installation, and cost-sharing with producers on the ID device.

The Timetable For Individual ID

Since ultimate implementation of premises ID is still murky, there's no telling when and how individual ID will happen.

“Several of our goals are to create an effective, uniform and consistent system to allow producers flexibility to build upon the plans that USAIP has developed; remain technology neutral; and ensure the system allows producers the ability to gain additional information from this plan,” Hawks says.

Separately, Veneman says, “This framework is the result of concerted efforts to expedite the implementation of a system that meets our goals and enables farmers and ranchers to adapt existing ID programs and to use all existing forms of effective technologies.”

While USDA indicates it will look to USAIP for standards, no one can yet be sure what the final NAIS standards will be. While USDA officials still dance around the issue, NAIS will likely end up mandatory, though it will start as a voluntary program.

Unlike a mandatory program, Hawks says data collected in a voluntary program isn't subject to the Freedom of Information Act. Before going mandatory, Hawks says, USDA wants to take the steps necessary, legislative or otherwise, to safeguard the confidentiality of producer-submitted data.

It's also a safe bet that beef will be the focus of initial efforts. Lifetime group production and movement in swine and poultry make those species easier to track. And, according to the 1997 National Animal Health and Monitoring Service report, 52% of operations don't individually ID calves. That's about 35% of all calves.

Producer Input Still Sought

Although frustrating to some, USDA's NAIS implementation plans are more of a public agreement to move forward than a specific plan for how different livestock industries need to progress. Producers can still be part of the process.

“We need the producers' help. We need all the livestock organizations to help move this forward,” Hawks says. “We don't have all the answers today, but we're certainly looking for the dialog to attempt to get as many of those answers as we possibly can.”

Hawks shrinks from predicting how quickly NAIS will be realized. “When you look at the complexity of what we're doing, the complexity of the livestock industry around the country and, in particular with the framework of government, we are moving extremely fast,” Hawks says. “But, we also want to make certain we are doing it correctly, that we are doing the right thing.”

Unfortunately, the foreign animal diseases the system is designed to contain are not bound by such concerns.