While the National Animal Identification System (NAIS) never went away, it has simmered on the back burner for quite some time. The proliferation of age- and source-verification programs has enabled many producers to capture the economic benefits associated with traceback capabilities, leaving NAIS in the position of being one of those industry initiatives where customers say they want it, scientists tell us we need it, but nobody wants to bear the cost.
The memories of BSE, foot-and-mouth disease (FMD) and bioterrorism concerns have subsided. Thus, the push for a national animal-tracking system has been lukewarm. Meanwhile, the opposition to NAIS has grown even stronger.
USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack initiated a listening tour this week designed to gather info about the future of animal ID and traceability in the U.S. Proponents point to the development of traceback programs in competing countries, while opponents point to the fact that we haven't needed it the last several years.
Perhaps the most intriguing thing, at least to me, is to see some of the strongest opponents and proponents of mandatory country of origin labeling (MCOOL) come down on opposite sides of the issue once again. This time, however, they’ve largely co-opted the arguments of the other side.
Both MCOOL and NAIS have been opposed by some on the grounds it expands government into areas in which it doesn’t need to be involved, that it provides an encumbrance to commerce, and that it will add costs without subsequent benefits. Meanwhile, NAIS proponents argue that traceback from an animal and human aspect is not only a valid government role, but one of the few valid roles for government.
Certainly, disease control is one of those areas where individual and industry objectives might vary significantly. But voluntary traceback is an oxymoron, as the system breaks down almost immediately unless there is universal participation. It’s a little like buying insurance against disasters; odds are they won’t occur, but if they do and you’re unprotected, recovery will be difficult.
Like MCOOL, we’ll likely end up with some form of NAIS, but whatever emerges threatens to be so watered down that the only economic impact will be additional costs. The bottom line is that when customers like McDonald's, Wal-Mart and Japan say they are going to demand it, eventually it will come to pass.
The question is whether it will be in a form that is cost-effective and still able to accomplish traceback quickly enough to control a disease like FMD.