This past summer, USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service held "listening hearings" on the National Animal Identification System (NAIS), a program the agency has been implementing, along with many states since 2004, to carry out health surveillance of livestock by identifying and tracking herds and specific animals. The goal of the program is to give producers not already part of a disease program an opportunity to participate in national efforts to safeguard the health of animals.

The purpose of the latest hearings was similar to those conducted by USDA when the program was just beginning. The agency wanted input about the best way to design a viable means of tracing food animals to their sources, or identifying premises where the animals come from, especially when a disease occurs, whether foot-and-mouth disease or bovine spongiform encephalopathy. It was after the first case of BSE was discovered in the United States on Dec. 23, 2003, that pressure began building for expanding a national animal identification program.

NAIS was designed and operated by USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS). There’s been plenty of debate over whether the government-operated system is being run very well. But the biggest disagreement over NAIS has been about whether it should be a voluntary program, as it is now, or if it should become mandatory, as some agriculture groups would like it to be. APHIS says the system works by identifying locations where livestock, including cattle, swine, poultry, sheep, goats, bison, deer, elk and others are kept or handled, then identifying the individual animals. The last step in NAIS is to track animal movement between various locations. The two main steps are identification of the premises, followed by individual animal identification using an individual or group identification number.

The program has had mixed success. Trade associations for different species of food animals have differing views over how successful it should be, whether it should continue to operate on a voluntary basis and how it can be improved. The National Cattlemen’s Beef Association (NCBA), which speaks for large numbers of cattle producers in the U.S., would like NAIS to remain voluntary. Smaller groups representing ranchers feel the same way.

The American Meat Institute would like the government program to become mandatory; so would the National Pork Producers Council.

"We already have a swine identification program, where 85 percent of swine premises are registered," says Dave Warner, communications director for NPPC. "Many of our people are using the swine program or NAIS. In fact, 58,000 of 67,000 pork operators in our group are already registered. At the end of July, 90 percent of all hogs in the U.S. were registered."

A new regime

With the arrival of the Obama Administration in Washington in January, newly appointed Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack decided to hold a second set of "listening sessions" to get feedback from stakeholders, including producers, processors, people from academia and others in the industry as to how the system could be improved. These sessions were held in May and June of this year. From the government’s standpoint, the listening sessions didn’t go all that well, with many participants doing more speaking then listening. A review of the sessions shows many opponents of NAIS were much more outspoken than supporters and very critical of the way USDA had run the program so far.

Vilsack said the purpose of the sessions was to help him make decisions about the future direction of animal identification and traceability in the U.S. "Many of the issues and concerns initially raised by producers, such as the cost, impact on small farmers, privacy, confidentiality and liability, continue to cause debate," he said at the time.

But Congress won’t likely wait for USDA to make changes in NAIS before taking action. Congress has been watching reactions of producers and other stakeholders to the program. So far, USDA has received $142 million in funding for the program since 2004. In July, the House of Representatives eliminated all funding for the NAIS in its version of the proposed 2010 agriculture spending legislation. Two months ago, the Senate sliced its NAIS funding proposal for the upcoming year from $14.6 million to $7.3 million. The funding issue went to a Senate-House conference committee, where the $7.3 million is likely to be adopted as a compromise. The actions Congress took in slicing funding were mostly a result of the criticism of the program during the summer public hearings.

Members of Congress also expressed concerns about not enough producers participating in the program to make it worthwhile. Particularly outspoken about the huge amount of money USDA has spent on NAIS during the past five years, with little to show for it, is U.S. Rep.

Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., who chairs the Agriculture-Appropriations Subcommittee. So far, APHIS has convinced less than one-third of ranchers and farmers to participate.

But now there are concerns in the meat and poultry industry over steps Congress is taking in legislation to strengthen the Food and Drug Administration’s food-safety efforts. There are fears these steps could end up affecting USDA and the industry it regulates, including meat and poultry processing, which so far has been kept immune from effects of legislation strengthening the FDA. There are some concerns the House legislation and other bills could affect how NAIS operates, including the possibility of making the animal ID program mandatory.

For example, there are food traceback provisions in two pieces of legislation strengthening the FDA, which could be expanded to shift NAIS from voluntary to mandatory if Congress wanted to do that. They are the Food Safety Enhancement Act – H.R. 2749 and the Food Safety Modernization Act – H.R. 875. Legislation has also been introduced in the House forbidding any animal not going through a mandatory animal ID program from being processed for federal meat inspection. There are concerns about Congress looking at USDA and deciding traceback should be similar to what is being considered for the FDA.

If that were to happen, mandatory animal ID might have to be part of the discussion, Mark Dopp, general counsel and senior vice president for regulatory affairs of the American Meat Institute, says. "If Congress looks at how USDA operates and thinks traceback should be like FDA, it could happen."

While AMI, NPPC and other trade associations support a mandatory National Animal Identification System, and Dopp says his organization supports APHIS’ role in animal ID, possible actions by Congress could make it harder for supporters to continue backing the program.

Bovine implications

The National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, the largest national association for cattle producers, is probably the staunchest opponent of mandatory NAIS among major agricultural organizations. Dr. Elizabeth Parker, chief veterinarian for NCBA, says the organization represents 230,000 cattle farmers and ranchers. "We recognize and support the need for a National Animal Identification System to help state and federal animalhealth officials respond rapidly and effectively to animal-health emergencies, such as foreign animal disease outbreaks or emerging domestic diseases. Animal health is a very strong reason to use it. We also support the use of animal identification systems to improve genetics and as a marketing tool. While we recognize the need for continuing refinements of the program, NCBA policy supports the adoption of NAIS as the national animal identification program," she says.

Dr. Parker says NCBA has encouraged its members to participate in animal ID programs. Many members already participate voluntarily in animal identification programs as one of many tools to improve their herds, monitor disease and better market their cattle.

"However, our members continue to have concerns with NAIS, which is why NCBA policy supports a voluntary, rather than a mandatory system," she says. "Confidentiality is a major concern of our private producers because information about our producers would be lodged in a USDA-maintained database. The federal government does not have a strong track record of preventing the leak of private information. If you look at other countries having animal ID for cattle, they all have private-sector programs, not government programs. They all phased in their systems, between and within species. If there are already good private-sector programs here, why a public mandated program?" She also has concerns about mandatory animal ID slowing down the speed of commerce, including working, processing and marketing of cattle.

She says costs to producers, especially small producers, would be sizable. And she does not think animal ID should be used as a food-safety tool, with federal and state food-safety inspection programs already in place.

Ironically, Gary Voogt, president of NCBA, who owns and runs a farm with 100 registered Angus cows in Marne, Mich., not far from Grand Rapids, operates under a state-mandated animal ID program – and likes it. He explains the Michigan program was put in place by the state because of Bovine Tuberculosis. "It’s hard to track cattle without a uniform system," he explains.

Even before the state-mandated requirement went into effect, the Midwest cattle producer had been using the animal ID program on a voluntary basis, "and it caused me no problems. We got into it at weaning time, and put the tags on when the calves got vaccinated," he says. In addition to Bovine TB, a deer in the state came down with Chronic Wasting Disease. "It was a fluke, but with this system, they traced all the pen mates in 20 minutes."

Voogt believes the program is valuable because it helps protect livestock in case of an animal disease outbreak.

It is done just like an ear tag, and costs him $2.35 a piece. There is also a transponder on one side of the tag, and with an electronic reader, it makes the operation simple. "It’s like how a barcode works in a supermarket," he says. He notes while it is easy for him to implement with a small herd, many big producers are using NAIS voluntarily. Part of the reason are export requirements levied by Japan and South Korea, who want to know the age and source of cattle. "That gives producers who use the system an edge," Voogt believes. Increasing the age of cattle Japan will accept from a maximum of 20 months to 30 months would increase the export value of American cattle by $1 billion, he notes.

The system has also helped producers who ship their cattle across state lines, which is important in the purebred business. Packers, he notes, are used to dealing with it, collecting the tags after animals are slaughtered and turning them back to the state of Michigan.

Processor perspectives

Processors also have a stake in animal ID, and to one company’s way of thinking – animal ID gives a great advantage in its daily business dealings. Ryan Meyer, director of cattle procurement for Creekstone Farms Premium Beef in Arkansas City, Kan., a processor of Black Angus beef, says animal identification is important because of age and source verification of cattle it processes for Japan. "For us and for other processors who export, animal identification is very important," he says. "We gain an advantage by having this information."

Meyer’s company slaughters, fabricates and creates value-added meat products. He thinks most of the demand for animal identification is driven by American producers’ and processors’ interest in increasing their export markets, especially to Japan and Europe, rather than those who are strictly domestically oriented. He also believes the government National Animal Identification System will not succeed "unless it gets some teeth" – converting it from a voluntary to mandatory program. It could be valuable for the entire industry in cases where there are export restrictions.

"On the other hand, it would probably be better for progressive producers and processors if it remains voluntary. For them, it could increase the value of cattle $20 to $40 a head," he says. "That’s because some producers would lose value-added if it becomes mandatory. Producers want to keep the added value of their cattle, and voluntary animal identification would help some of them do that. But on the other hand, a mandatory system would help the entire industry, there’s no doubt."

Meyer said under voluntary NAIS, premiums remain available for progressive producers and processors. "But if we go to a mandatory program, the premiums might not be available anymore," he points out.

One academic who has studied the issue of animal identification extensively says the future of NAIS in the U.S. depends on how far Congress, USDA and ranchers and farmers want to go with it. "The real question is, ‘What are we supposed to tell producers about animal ID? What is the take home message to them?’" asks Dr. Nevil Speer, professor of agriculture and environmental science at Western Kentucky Univ., Bowling Green, Ky. He says there is a great deal of opposition to the concept and use of traceability among producers.

"I don’t like the term ‘traceability’ because it implies liability going backwards from the meat product to the animal. Instead, we should be using animal identification to establish value going forward, the attributes of the product manufactured by the producer and the processor. It would include the eating quality, the product’s story behind what was made, the animal welfare during production and processing. Also, who raised it? And organic or natural labels, if it has either of those."

Speer says it is up to the industry to tell the story of the animal and the product coming from it, not leaving it in the hands of general news media who don’t understand and are not sympathetic to animal production and processing. "We’re not going to get our story to the public, to consumers and effectively win against the people who would like to stop animal agriculture unless we can preserve the identity of the animals, and we can do that through animal identification," he says.

The animal scientist says turning NAIS into a big vs. small producer issue hasn’t been helpful to the industry either. "I’m a proponent of market-driven traceability," he says. "We have to tell the truth through our products, which will involve good animal identification. That’s how to beat Time magazine and PETA and the Humane Society of the United States at their game," he says.

Bernard Shire is M&P’s Washington correspondent based in Lancaster, Pa. He also works as a food safety consultant for Shire & Associates.