A quiet, unannounced change made by the U.S. Department of Agriculture to a memorandum concerning its National Animal Identification System (NAIS) program was not only "irresponsible," according to one industry spokesman, but comprises further evidence of a major shift away from USDA’s historical mission to protect the U.S. livestock industry from disease.

"They did this exclusively and without any comment from the industry or the public. I don’t think the public was intended to even know about it," Bill Bullard, CEO of Ranchers-Cattlemen Action Legal Fund, United Stockgrowers of America, or R-CALF USA, told MEATPOULTRY.com. "We wouldn’t have even known about it if one of our members hadn’t heard about it from his veterinarian. This was nothing more than USDA trying to further their own agenda."

The change made to Memorandum No. 575.19, originally issued on Sept. 18, 2008, was made on Dec. 22 and revises the memo to mandate the use of a standardized premises identification number, or PIN, as the sole premises identification number under NAIS. Bullard says the new mandate, and NAIS, "infringes on the rights of our members. It’s a requirement to register private property with the federal government."

R-CALF believes USDA is "being influenced by inappropriate agencies," he added, "such as the World Trade Organization and the WTO’s OIE (Office International des Epizooties, or World Organization for Animal Health), plus all the corporate ID tag companies. We’re talking about a lot of money for them. Tagging the whole U.S. beef herd would involve millions and millions of tags." In fact, the present U.S. beef herd numbers approximately 95 million head.

But beyond the issue of federal requirements for documenting and identifying personal private property, Bullard says he’s greatly concerned that USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, or APHIS, seems to have shifted away from its historical mission. As recently as the early 1990s, APHIS officials, veterinarians and researchers worked on the premise that the best way to prevent U.S. livestock from being infected with foreign diseases was to stop those diseases in their countries of origin. "They’ve abandoned that mission," Bullard said, dating the change to 1997. "That’s when the agency first began promoting regionalization, saying that we could import livestock from certain disease-free regions of a country even if other regions had the disease. What that meant was that APHIS’s program was no longer about prevention, it was about managing the diseases once they got to the United States. Now it’s all about controlling diseases, not stopping them at the borders." He cited bovine tuberculosis and the fever tick parasite, both of which may have crossed the border with Mexico to infect the U.S. heard, as examples of the risk inherent in a control, rather than prevention, strategy.

He said R-CALF is not opposed to animal identification in general, and the organization’s members fully comply, he added, with USDA’s various disease programs. "We’ve held from the outset that we should be building on existing disease programs. There’s a problem right now with lack of communication between federal and state agencies – they’re still depending on the telephone, for example. Let’s change that and build on the infrastructure we’ve already got in place."

He’s mildly hopeful the incoming Obama Administration will take a hard look at NAIS. "I think there’s a growing recognition in Washington that USDA has gone about this pretty haphazardly," he said. "There’s no semblance of a national strategy at all. But we don’t have any commitments yet" for major changes to NAIS.