You might not have heard much about the National Animal Identification System lately. Ever since USDA announced in 2006 that the program would remain voluntary, NAIS dropped off the radar for many producers.

But, much as Mark Twain reportedly once said, “The report of my death has been greatly exaggerated,” the NAIS remains active, with several components in place and others under development.

With the 2007 Farm Bill currently under debate and elections approaching next year, the direction of NAIS could change considerably. But for now, the program continues to register livestock premises while developing its animal identification and animal tracking capabilities.

A look at the program’s Web site, at http://animalid.aphis.usda.gov/nais, shows several development activities either completed or underway. Several pilot projects, funded by USDA to evaluate different aspects of NAIS in various industry segments, are complete with the reports available online.

Just last month, USDA announced that Kansas State University will lead a cost-benefit analysis of NAIS in cooperation with Colorado State University, Michigan State University and Montana State University. The analysis will cover multiple species, industry segments and different sizes of operations.

Mission and components

NAIS, according to USDA documents, is a voluntary, national program that will help producers protect the health of their animals and their investment in the case of an animal disease event. The system includes three primary components.

Premises registration is the foundation of NAIS. Producers can register their livestock premises by contacting their state or tribal NAIS administrator. Contact information is available on the NAIS Web site.

Animal identification is the second component of NAIS, and official tags and ID numbers are available for beef cattle. This system provides a uniform numbering system and a way of linking animals to their premises of origin.

Animal tracing, the final NAIS component, is under development within individual states and the private sector.

Wayne Maloney, a public affairs officer with USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service in Washington, DC, says the program now includes four certified tag manufacturers and six official tags using the NAIS Animal Identification Number. Currently, all the official devices are ISO-certified RFID tags, although NAIS remains “technology neutral” and could certify other types of devices.

Focus on premises registration

At the federal level, Maloney says, “Our focus continues to be premises registration in production agriculture. As of mid-July, producers had registered about 406,000 premises in NAIS, up from 307,000 in August 2006.”

Recent disease outbreaks, he adds, demonstrate the need for premises registration and more efficient intervention. During a pseudorabies outbreak in Wisconsin swine herds last year, officials faced challenges trying to contain the disease, as some swine operations in the area were not registered. And in 2003, when exotic newcastle disease broke out in California poultry flocks, Maloney says containment took seven months, involving 1,600 federal and state personnel at a cost of $130 million and the loss of 3.2 million birds. The outbreak began in small, “backyard” poultry operations, and premises registration could have helped expedite containment and reduced losses considerably.

Robert Fourdraine is chief operating officer for the Wisconsin Livestock Identification Consortium, the organization that coordinates NAIS and premises registration for Wisconsin. State NAIS administrators and USDA officials, he says, are concentrating on outreach, working through industry and producer organizations to communicate the goals of NAIS and the importance of premises registration.

Wisconsin has used this approach with good success since 2003, he says. Premises registration, now mandatory in Wisconsin, was initially voluntary, and the state saw good participation through producer organizations. Virtually all commercial livestock operators in Wisconsin have registered their premises, with remaining unregistered premises mostly small operations not involved with industry or producer organizations.

Jim Meggs, with Arizona’s Department of Agriculture, serves as that state’s NAIS coordinator. He also stresses that outreach and education, particularly for people who own just a few animals, can build support for the program. Horse owners in Arizona, he says, raised objections to NAIS, believing the state would require them to record and track movements of their horses every time they put them on a trailer for a ride away from home. Once people understand the goal is not to trace every movement of every animal, but that the program is for disease traceability, he says they become more receptive and willing to register their premises.

Premises identification, Fourdraine stresses, applies to everyone who owns livestock, not pets such as dogs, cats or rabbits. The industry just needs to demonstrate to smaller producers that premises registration alone can protect animal health by allowing officials to contact them in the case of a disease outbreak. Disease traceability, involving animal ID and recording some movements, is a “level above,” he says, applying primarily to producers involved in livestock commerce.

Cooperative agreements

To encourage better understanding of the program, Maloney says, APHIS is developing cooperative agreements with groups such as the National FFA Organization and the Pork Board, and conducting outreach with African-American, Hispanic and Native American groups.

Last month the agency announced a partnership with the U.S. Animal Identification Organization for outreach efforts and to register more than 100,000 new premises.

Beyond premises ID

In Wisconsin and around the country, Fourdraine says, the industry is shifting to a broader perspective of traceability, beyond the more narrowly focused disease-intervention goals of NAIS. Animal health, he says, is one of the drivers behind the need for traceability, but so are food safety and marketing issues such as verifying value-added claims and country of origin. The industry, he says, needs an identification system that complements these goals.

USDA has laid the foundation for the animal identification component by developing standards and certifying ID-device manufacturers and service providers, Fourdraine says. Now the agency is leaving it largely up to states, tribes, industry organizations and species groups to implement the system.

Eventually, the animal tracking component will allow USDA to interface with approved state or private data-management entities for disease-control purposes. The big question, he says, is whether producer participation will be large enough to create the critical mass necessary for a viable tracking system.

This creates continuing need for education and outreach. Wisconsin, Fourdraine notes, is moving forward with voluntary animal identification, beginning much as it did with premises ID — working with producer groups and setting up hands-on implementation projects to show how the system works.

The majority of producers in the state, he says, do not object to the concept of animal ID or NAIS, but they are concerned about the practicality of implementation. WLIC is currently setting up demonstration projects on 40 different farms of various types and sizes. “Under a voluntary system, we need to be able to demonstrate the benefits of animal ID.”

Politics, pets and paranoia

Much of the most persistent opposition to NAIS comes from hobby farmers who raise a few livestock animals as pets or for small-scale production of food or fiber. They fear invasion of their privacy or that federal inspectors will want access to their property and animals.

Groups such as NoNAIS, Stop Animal ID, Liberty Ark Coalition, FreeToFarm and the Alliance for Sustainable Communities sponsor Web sites and distribute literature filled with big-brother imagery, conspiracy theories and claims that NAIS will require registration of every domestic animal and records of every livestock movement in the country. Some suggest the program is a step toward the government’s goal of placing RFID chips in citizens to track their movements.

Even religion enters into the NAIS debate. In June of this year, James Landis, a Mennonite duck farmer in Pennsylvania, filed a lawsuit against the state’s Department of Agriculture, claiming that premises registration violated his religious freedom. Amish groups also oppose NAIS on religious grounds.

Meggs understands that some of the most vocal opponents of NAIS probably have their minds set and never will accept the program. “All we can do is continue to explain it the best we know how.”

Commercial beef producers, he says, are different. “Premises identification is free, and they can see the potential benefits of being able to market their cattle as source-verified.” EID tags cost $2 to $3, he adds, but producers again can see the benefits of using individual identification to make management decisions in their herds that can recoup the investment quickly. “When we talk with cattlemen, we talk about money.”