“What we really need and what we're trying to do is protect the livestock assets of this country,” says Bret Marsh, Indiana state veterinarian and president of the U.S. Animal Health Association (USAHA). “ID is a piece of that puzzle.”

Marsh and other state and federal animal-health officials, along with livestock producers at the recent ID Info/Expo, continued to stress the need for a standardized animal ID system for animal-disease surveillance and animal-health monitoring.

After all, as Sam Holland, South Dakota state veterinarian, pointed out at the same meeting, tracking cattle for health purposes currently results in too many dead ends. In fact, of 1,500 cattle sampled for BSE at one South Dakota testing center, 858 had no official ID stemming from current disease eradication programs, and most had no ID of any kind.

Likewise, in a recent sampling of 37 head of cattle with titers to brucellosis, Holland says seven had no ID.

“The same scenario would be found for TB sampling,” he adds. “We recently had a cow with TB at slaughter we know most likely came from one of three states. That doesn't cut it.”

Keep in mind this is in South Dakota, where the total cattle population is about 3.7 million head; the nation's cattle inventory on Jan. 1 this year was about 97 million head.

As John Clifford, USDA Chief Veterinarian, told ID Info/Expo participants: “Bottom line, we need a system that enables state and federal animal-health officials to address existing diseases, foreign animal diseases and emerging domestic diseases.” He also pointed out the National Animal Identification System (NAIS) would support ongoing control and eradication programs aimed at diseases such as bovine TB, brucellosis and Johne's disease.

Unfortunately, the process to implement NAIS is a study in mind-numbing frustration. Some progress has been made (see “All We Know About NAIS,” page 36), but necessary answers and direction from USDA continue to lag behind increasing animal-health risk and the need for ID.

Sans action on NAIS recommendations from the Cattle Industry Working Group — they've languished in the office of the USDA Secretary for months — producers are still asking the same questions as when former Secretary Ann Veneman told the world in January 2004 that national ID was a priority. Among them:

  • How much will it cost?

    Despite repeated requests from various cattle industry groups, there's still no estimate.

  • Is it mandatory or voluntary?

    The NAIS Implementation Plan issued in April clearly states federal regulation is a contingency for garnering the participation necessary for effective animal trace-back. I've asked USDA Secretary Mike Johanns no fewer than three times, in public forums, what level of voluntary participation would be deemed sufficient or what level is necessary to prevent making the program mandatory. Each time, I've gotten a lot of words but no answers.

  • What purpose does USDA intend NAIS to serve?

    Producers want it for animal-disease purposes, and various USDA documents state a similar aim. Yet, in front of ID Info/Expo folks, Johanns continued to harp on the market aspects individual animal ID enables, not what ID under NAIS is intended to accomplish.

“We'll be issuing a comprehensive document in the next several months that we hope will answer questions about what NAIS is and isn't,” Johanns said.

Don't hold your breath. Promises of other impending documents have proven too late or empty. Even if such a document is issued, recent history suggests actual answers will be sparser than chin whiskers on a baby.

Never mind the fact the Senate Agriculture Appropriations Bill (awaiting conferencing with the House bill) called for freezing NAIS funding until USDA comes up with program details. Congressional leaders have also begun a General Accounting Office investigation of NAIS. Johanns never mentioned it at the ID Info/Expo.

USAHA — densely populated by state animal health officials — continues to try to move the process forward despite the fact USDA has consistently ignored its recommendations. For instance, USAHA encouraged USDA to abide by the U.S. Animal Identification Program (the basis for NAIS), which called for a centralized repository for animal-tracking data. USDA thumbed its nose at USAHA last fall by switching gears in favor of private systems.

“It's time to get down to the short rows,” Marsh says. “It's time to move this effort forward. We must not let the NAIS program fall into the hands of others who would take it in different directions.”

Among the commonsense, immediate needs for national animal ID, Holland suggests, “Keep it a state animal-health agency/industry/USDA program, not — as every other program is getting to be — strictly run by USDA with total disregard for state animal-health agencies and their ability to work with industry.”

Now's the time to remind USDA that state animal-health officials make state and national animal-health programs work, not the other way around.