Animal trace-back — at least figuring out where a particular food animal began its journey into commerce — is fairly easy, though not necessarily fast or foolproof.

Meanwhile, trace-forward — figuring out all the stops an animal makes during that journey, and all of the specific peers it comes into contact with along the way — is tougher and more imprecise.

That's why the National Animal Identification System (NAIS) is being developed. It isn't that brands, dangle tags, ear notches and other animal ID forms in use today don't work for their intended purpose. They do.

And, it's not so producers can track individual animal performance, manage animals individually and net greater returns, though some producers are already proving the merit of this approach.

NAIS is being developed to protect the nation's livestock herd from catastrophic losses resulting from a natural or intentional introduction of a virulent animal disease that can't be contained quickly enough due to ineffective animal tracking.

Unfortunately, the primary reason NAIS was developed seems to have been forgotten as various livestock-industry factions, private industry groups and USDA squabble about how to piece the program together.

Slow but broken

This reality became abundantly clear at the recent ID Info/Expo hosted by the National Institute for Animal Agriculture.

Yes, the national premises registration system for NAIS is now in place. But USDA says only 126,800 premises had been registered — out of 2.2 million — as of late September. The Draft Strategic Plan (DSP) issued by USDA in May wants all premises to be registered by January 2008.

Yes, the official animal ID numbering system has been adopted, but the beef industry is the only livestock species that has submitted recommendations to USDA about the ID technology it will use (beef has decided upon radio-frequency ID). These official numbers aren't yet being distributed to tag manufacturers, though the DSP also calls for official NAIS ID of all livestock entering commerce by January 2008.

Yes, USDA officials report the database for reporting animal movement is near completion. The DSP calls for intra-state and interstate livestock movement in commerce to be reported by January 2009. But then, USDA bowed to industry concerns about NAIS data potentially being accessible through the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).

Rather than the government building and maintaining this database — despite there being no consensus on whether data held privately is FOIA-proof — USDA announced in August it was up to the private sector to build and maintain this database, with USDA oversight. This also means industry, rather than government, assumes the cost of building and maintaining the database.

“It seems many times that we're taking one step forward and 37 steps back with implementation,” says David Thayne, DVM, president of the National Assembly of State Animal Health Officials. “We shouldn't be having a conversation about whether the database (animal movement) should be public or private this late in the game.”

One longtime, dogged advocate of national animal ID in the name of protecting the national herd was so downhearted by the turn of events that he speculated NAIS progress had been set back at least a year.

USDA hosted the first meeting last month to further define requirements for this private database. Keep in mind that building it will require the livestock industry to figure out how to put together a legal entity that can enter into a legal arrangement with USDA.

Presumably, constructing such an industry-representative entity (encompassing all livestock species and sectors) will require the kind of cooperation and consensus that's so far been lacking in the NAIS process. So, odds are this new wrinkle will delay NAIS implementation even more, not speed it along.

The clock of risk spins on

In the meantime, Travis Choat asked folks at the ID Info/Expo, “Is our preparation progressing at the same rate as the risk?” Choat is Smithfield Beef Group's director of tech services/live operations. He was offering a packer's perspective on the need for NAIS.

Never mind the fact the U.S. beef industry is still mired in the realities of how a foreign animal disease (FAD) such as BSE can turn business upside down. Choat shared statistics about international travel — germane to any discussion of FAD risk. There were 46.1 million visitors to the U.S. last year, 11.8% more than 2003. That number is projected to be 49.1 million this year, and 52.3 million by 2007.

The countries these visitors came from represent those that have had — within the last five years — avian influenza, foot-and-mouth disease, classical swine fever, Exotic Newcastle Disease and BSE.

Let's hope domestic consumers and international governments never equate the safety of U.S. meat to its ability to track the livestock in the event of an FAD outbreak. As it is, Choat says if consumers choose “traceable” as a product requirement, the U.S. can't compete.

Demand more

Understandably, the halls at this meeting weren't packed with producers. There's no concrete plan, nor firm deadlines. Only rules in draft form exist.

Bottom line, producers have little incentive to do anything relative to NAIS unless their states mandate it, or if they can figure out how using more ID technology will help them make more money.

The NAIS movers and shakers were at the meeting, though. These are the livestock industry representatives, state animal health officials, USDA staff and allied-industry representatives. Some of these folks are also producers, but their mission was representing members, constituents and customers.

Some of them shared statistics about what the folks they represent think about NAIS in general, or about specific components of the program. In every case, the formal and informal polls and comments represent only a fraction of the respective group.

So, you can point a finger at the inability of these representatives to get NAIS off the ground, but look in the mirror, too. Let those representing your interests in this matter know what you expect.

“Let's not squander this opportunity by bickering about who's in charge and who owns what,” Thayne said. “We need to get off the stick and get it done… Working together works.”

Playing ESA catch-up

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) will perform status reviews for all 194 California species mentioned in a Pacific Legal Foundation (PLF) lawsuit earlier this year.

PLF, a public-interest legal organization dedicated to defending private property rights, had argued the Endangered Species Act requires government to review the status of listed species every five years. But, FWS failed to review 194 of California's total of 298 listed species.

Under an agreement, FWS now says it will perform all the reviews over the next eight years. FWS also agreed to prioritize the reviews according to how much is known about a particular species and how onerous its listing has been for California property owners and businesses.