It could easily become one of the most contentious issues dividing the meat industry — if it isn’t that already — but industry representatives who attended a meeting earlier this month with Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack seemed pleased with how the secretary is choosing to handle the debate over the future of the National Animal Identification System, at least so far.

"The secretary made it clear during the meeting that this is his first foray into the issue," Colin Woodall, executive director of legal affairs for the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association and an attendee at the gathering, told "What probably impressed me the most was that the secretary took a lot of notes — he was taking his own notes. He seemed to be really listening to what everyone had to say."

A total of 28 organizations, mostly producer groups like the NCBA but also representatives from organizations representing packers and processors, took part in the meeting. Each representative had five-to-eight minutes in which to present his or her group’s point of view. USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service began implementing NAIS in 2004, but the program has been subject to delays and modification ever since as the industry and USDA debate how far-reaching an NAIS should be.

"The secretary is inclined to favor NAIS, so the real decision is whether the program’s going to be voluntary of mandatory. This meeting was the first step in that process," said Woodall. The April 15 meeting will be followed by several "town hall"-type gatherings hosted by the secretary to be held at various locations throughout the U.S.

In general, meatpackers and processors favor a livestock identification system and many prefer a mandatory program, such as was instituted in Europe following the bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) and foot-and-mouth disease crises of the 1990s, which devastated beef industries across Europe, particularly in the United Kingdom. A traceback system tied to a federally managed computer database would allow faster detection of problem-source livestock and more rapid containment of diseases, proponents of mandated traceback argue. Opponents, however, see the issue in terms of privacy, property rights and liability.

"One of our biggest concerns is confidentiality of information," said Woodall. "When it comes to keeping private information private, the government’s track record is pretty sketchy, let’s be honest about it. Until we have a firm, iron-clad guarantee of confidentiality, we can’t support a mandatory NAIS program." There has been some concerns voiced in the producer community as well that meatpackers would be able to use a traceback system to assign liability to producers for things like pathogenic contamination. At present, packers and processors found by USDA inspectors to have contaminated and/or adulterated product must bear the costs of a product recall.

Woodall told that producer organizations are also particularly concerned that anti-meat activists could access information in a government-managed traceback system, using the data to target ranches and farms for mayhem and vandalism. Until a federal judge in U.S. District Court in the District of Columbia ruled otherwise earlier this month, there were worries among producers that NAIS data would be accessible through Freedom of Information Act requests. The ruling held that NAIS data is protected by the Privacy Act.

Even though Vilsack has made public statements supporting NAIS, Woodall said he likes what he’s seen so far from the secretary in terms of dialogue. "There’s been a firm commitment from the secretary to take a step back and take a look at the whole thing," the NCBA executive commented. "He’s not against making some changes to what’s been proposed so far. I’m satisfied too, that he is taking our point of view very seriously."