If you've been against a national animal ID program for animal-health purposes, rejoice. Your dream has come true.

If you've been for national ID but leery of USDA's consistent bungling of the National Animal Identification System (NAIS), your worst suspicions are confirmed.

If you're one of the fringe folks who believe any form of ID is another building block in some satanic New World Order, rest easy. Even in the death of NAIS you can surely find a conspiracy to rally around.

Yes, death.

USDA — and the current administration — effectively and quietly knocked NAIS in the head in November by finally — and apparently decisively — answering the industry's question about the mandatory or voluntary intent of the program.

According to the unheralded release of the NAIS “User Guide”: “USDA is not requiring participation in the program. NAIS can help producers protect the health and marketability of their animals — but the choice to participate is theirs.” The document, available at: http://animalid.aphis.usda.gov/nais/...pdf, replaces all previous NAIS plans and documents.

Never mind the fact the U.S. Animal Health Association passed a resolution earlier this fall calling for mandatory animal ID for the purposes of animal-disease surveillance and animal-health monitoring. This group only includes folks such as state veterinarians and other officials charged with protecting the health of livestock at state and local levels. Why listen to them?

Pray for market forces

At a community outreach event in Kansas City earlier this fall, Chuck Conner, USDA deputy secretary, and Bruce Knight, USDA under secretary for marketing and regulatory programs, paved the way for the agency's back-pedaling.

“Since we've had some confusion on this, we need to be as clear as we can be. This is ‘Voluntary’ with a capital V. Not a currently voluntary, then maybe a mandatory system. This is a permanently voluntary system at the federal level,” Conner said.

“We're making it crystal clear that NAIS is voluntary — no ifs, ands or buts,” Knight explained. “Farmers can choose to register their premises. They can choose to participate in individual animal or group ID. And they can opt to be part of tracking. Or not.”

As such, gone from this draft plan is any mention of a timeline, let alone concrete steps toward enabling the 48-hour trace-back NAIS was intended to provide.

Instead, the User Guide offers platitudes for incentives, such as, “By choosing to participate in NAIS, producers demonstrate their total commitment to doing everything they can to protect their animals, their investment and their neighbors.”

The guide goes on to explain, “Participation in NAIS is voluntary at the federal level. Under our current authorities, USDA could make the NAIS mandatory, but we are choosing not to do so — again, participation in every component of NAIS is voluntary at the federal level. The NAIS does not need to be mandatory to be effective; we believe the goals of the system can be achieved with a voluntary program. As producers become increasingly aware of the benefits of the NAIS and the level of voluntary participation grows, there will only be less need to make the program mandatory.”

That's possible, though it hasn't been the case thus far.

Let commerce drive it

It's hard, too, to imagine the need commerce will see for a system cohesive, standardized and coordinated enough to provide the industry-wide, 48-hour trace-back NAIS was designed to provide.

Likewise, no matter how committed a producer is to protecting the industry and his operation — most obviously are — few are likely to pay for industry insurance if they believe a lack of participation will nullify potential benefits. Plus, producers continue to rightfully question why they should foot the bill for something that benefits the public overall.

Yes, taxpayers have ponied up $84.8 million to build parts of the insurance infrastructure, including a premises registration system and lots of red tape. But like other draft plans before it, the User Guide is devoid of any concrete cost estimates.

So, the only real incentive for animal ID remains the value that individual producers see in it for their own management or marketing purposes. That and the fact that premises registration or other NAIS components are already mandatory in some states.

Perhaps as vexing as being left in the lurch, back at square one but with more buttons and bells, is the potential for which mandatory programs legislators may try to use in filling the void. Country-of-origin labeling comes to mind.

The agency is accepting public comment on the User Guide until Jan. 22. No one could blame anyone for saving the time and trouble, though.