As part of its ongoing efforts to safeguard U.S. animal health, the U.S. Department of Agriculture initiated the implementation of the National Animal Identification System in 2004. According to USDA, NAIS is designed to standardize and expand animal identification programs for all livestock species and poultry. The long-term goal of NAIS is to provide animal health officials with the capability to identify all livestock and premises that have had direct contact with a disease of concern within 48 hours after discovery.

The program has hit multiple snags throughout its evolution. NAIS was initially introduced as a potentially mandatory system — a provision that met a great deal of resistance from producers and industry groups. Confidentiality and information security, as well as cost, were among some of the top concerns.

Since that time, USDA has positioned NAIS as a voluntary program; however, participation has been slow to progress. The U.S. Government Accountability Office released a report in July 2007 that identified several areas that USDA needed to focus on as it moved forward with NAIS. Most notably, GAO cited the voluntary nature of NAIS as perhaps one of the biggest stumbling blocks to gaining the necessary level of participation. The GAO report also noted that a shotgun approach to implementing NAIS simultaneously for all species, rather than prioritizing livestock types, spread resources too thin.

Those criticisms and others were widely addressed in a Business Plan to Advance Animal Disease Traceability that USDA released. The plan has ramifications for the cattle industry as USDA has cited the industry’s size and current lack of traceback ability as critical factors that warrant extra attention. While all primary food animal species and competition horses have been designated as Tier 1, cattle have also been given a “high” priority designation.

So, how is USDA moving forward with implementing NAIS? An initial focus was placed on registering premises to identify all the locations where livestock and/or poultry are raised or housed. Registration rates have been slow, but USDA currently estimates that almost 33 percent of the nation’s 1.4 million livestock farms have been registered.

Some states have been leading the way in premises registration, most notably Wisconsin, which made the system mandatory through a state statute in January 2006. The Michigan Department of Agriculture also implemented a mandatory requirement in November 2006, requiring that any Michigan cattle moving off farm premises must have electronic identification tags. The program was part of the state’s effort to regain bovine tuberculosis-free status.

Many of the most vocal opponents of NAIS are groups representing small farming interests. In May of this year, attorneys for the Farm-to-Consumer Legal Defense Fund sent a Notice of Intent to Sue letter to USDA and the Michigan Department of Agriculture over implementation of NAIS.

The notice charges that USDA has never published rules regarding NAIS, has never performed an Environmental Impact Statement, is in violation of the Regulatory Flexibility Act that requires the agency to analyze proposed rules for their impact on small entities and local governments, and violates religious freedoms guaranteed by the Religious Freedom Restoration Act.

The Ranchers Cattlemen’s Action Legal Fund United Stockgrowers of America has also come out strongly against NAIS and its objectives. In an April 2008 letter to USDA commenting on the agency’s business plan, R-CALF CEO Bill Bullard stated that his organization “…believes that the NAIS is a woefully inadequate substitute for rigorous import restrictions against countries with disease outbreaks. For this reason, R-CALF USA strongly opposes the Agency’s efforts to advance the NAIS.” The organization prefers that USDA focus on the restoration of “programs recently abandoned, and include in such programs the integration of state brand programs and state brand program infrastructures.”

The National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, after some reiterations, has stated in its most recent policy stand support for NAIS and “strongly encourages its members and all cattle producers to acquire a premises ID as soon as possible and to make plans to identify all animals prior to their commingling or change in ownership.” In fact, the National Cattlemen’s Foundation, the philanthropic arm of the organization, is currently partnering with USDA to promote premises registration.

To encourage participation in NAIS, USDA is presently focusing on campaigns that take advantage of programs cattle producers may already be involved in for marketing purposes. USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service released in April a plan that encourages participants in voluntary marketing initiatives such as USDA Process Verified, and the Non-Hormone Treated Cattle programs to use NAIS to meet the inherent animal identification requirements.            

“The AMS Business Plan will allow for integration of the National Animal Identification System with AMS audit-based marketing programs,” said Bruce Knight, undersecretary for marketing and regulatory programs, in a media statement.

Pending requirements for COOL legislation are also being promoted by USDA as a reason to participate in NAIS. Contingent upon the publication of a final rule implementing COOL, AMS and USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service will coordinate efforts to develop a COOL “safe harbor” for NAIS participants. Packers that rely on NAIS to determine the origin of their livestock and poultry will subsequently be recognized by USDA as demonstrating compliance with COOL.

Integration with existing animal health programs is also being pursued by USDA to further participation levels in NAIS, which was one of the strategies outlined in the business plan.  USDA has purchased a total of 1.5 million “840” RF animal identification tags to support animal disease-control programs, including the bovine TB and brucellosis programs.

“Using NAIS-compliant tags with RF technology establishes a consistent data format across our animal disease programs. It will also increase the efficiency and accuracy of the on-ground animal health task force conducting bovine TB testing and response,” Knight says.

The third primary component to NAIS and its goal of rapid traceback is to establish a more cohesive system for reporting animal movements that pose a disease risk. This may be one of the biggest challenges as the program moves forward. USDA officials have noted that a great deal of infrastructure still needs to be put in place to coordinate this aspect of NAIS.