Animal Tags: From NAIS to ‘Traceability’

The Department of Agriculture doesn't call it the National Animal Identification System (NAIS) any more. Instead, it's "animal traceability." Critics don't see much difference.

Share This:

The U.S. Department of Agriculture spent $120 million to set up a national identification system for animals and wound up buying nothing but a world of anger.

Only 36 percent of producers participated in the Bush administration’s version of animal ID, called the National Animal Identification System (NAIS). USDA said NAIS was needed to trace diseased animals, but producers found the system the agency proposed to be expensive and intrusive. The opposition to NAIS was overwhelming. (See a list of anti-NAIS web sites here.) 

The USDA even managed to upset urbanites with NAIS. Chicken-raising is now a fad among the hip and urban in places such as Austin (TX) and Saturday morning organic gardening radio shows warned that free-range flocks of city chickens tended by musicians, engineers and software designers would come under government control and require USDA tags.

Under Obama’s new USDA Secretary, Tom Vilsack, NAIS was withdrawn. At the same time, Congress eliminated most funding for the program.

That didn’t mean an effort to trace animals was dead, however.

In early February, the USDA announced what it called a “new flexible framework for animal disease traceability in the United States.” The system would only apply to animals involved in interstate commerce. And USDA promised to work cooperatively with producers, states and Tribal Nations. 

Oh, and they also changed the name. It was no longer called NAIS, but Animal Disease Traceability.

We went to the meeting in Kansas City on May 11th. Those attending appeared to be a pretty good representation of the center of the nation in attendance. There were people there from Texas up to South Dakota.

We met in a Holiday Inn near the KC sports complex. There were tables set up for the different types of livestock operations — cattle, swine, poultry, sheep, goats. (We didn’t see any representatives of urban chicken flocks.) We listened to speakers — they all had nice PowerPoints — and then broke up into groups, cattle raisers at one table, goats at another, and so on.

USDA is promoting the use of metal tags — “bright tags” — to trace the movement of animals from state to state. The department says that it doesn’t want to meddle in intrastate sales and that it’s most interested in cattle. There simply wasn’t much concern voiced in Kansas City about hogs, goats or poultry.

The USDA wants states to adopt a standard numbering system so that cattle could be traced back to a herd of origin within five days. Eventually, they want to get that down to three days.

Unlike NAIS, what the USDA is proposing isn’t particularly high-tech. There is no mention of RFID (radio frequency identification) tags. Instead, producers might be able to use ear tags provided by the USDA and applied under the guidance of a veterinarian.

At the Kansas City meeting, the USDA cited the cost of tracing tuberculosis and BSE (mad-cow disease), as well as maintaining a Brucellosis free status, as justification for the tagging. It was also understood that a growing threat from a reintroduction of foot-and-mouth disease was a consideration in the push to trace animals. (The British had a hard time tracing cattle after a FMD outbreak, we were told.)

NAIS was an inspiration to Photoshoppers across rural America. Dozens of these anti-animal tagging posters were spread around the Web.

The USDA appears to be trying to avoid the objections raised to NAIS. One of the most intense arguments against mandatory animal ID under proposed NAIS guidelines was that a privately maintained database outside USDA might not have been secure, which could have allowed unauthorized access by a variety of interests, including meat packers, or animal rights groups (think PETA or the Humane Society) who could then identify individual producers, their exact location, and the numbers and types of livestock they raise. That would give packers an unfair advantage in the marketplace, while activist groups could utilize it for vandalism or other harassment. By sticking to interstate traffic, and by having a system owned entirely by the states and Tribal Nations, the USDA is trying to avoid that problem.

And, of course, the USDA is giving up on the high-cost and high-tech RFID tags in favor of standard ear tags.

The USDA hopes to have a draft rule ready this summer.

Those who opposed NAIS are lining up against the new USDA system. Ag journalist Derry Brownfield wrote:

I’ve been studying the antics of Washington bureaucrats for 50 years and I know this is just another ploy to give farmers and ranchers a feeling of security, when all the while they are in the process of coming back with a much more draconian plan. The name has been changed and descriptive words have been eliminated and replaced with other objectives, but government continues to push towards turning the control of our livestock industry over to the multinational meat packers. The coyotes howl along the trail but the wagons keep rolling along.

R-CALF, the stockgrowers group, has written a letter saying the USDA is “deceptively railroading” the cattle industry with its new animal identification plan. 

R-CALF objects to USDA policies it contends would make it easier for diseased animals to be imported into the U.S.

The cattle raisers argue that USDA’s “real motive is to coerce unsuspecting U.S. livestock producers into assisting the agency in the development of a traceback system that USDA will later use in an attempt to mitigate and defend its reckless actions of continually inviting foreign animal diseases into the United States from disease-affected countries.”

Nebraska Sen. Mike Johanns (Secretary of USDA under Bush) said over the weekend that the federal government was trying to impose NAIS by calling it a different name, Roger Bluhm reported in the North Platte Telegraph

Critics aren’t mollified by the USDA’s animal traceability proposal.

“When I was secretary of the USDA, we looked at making NAIS mandatory,” Johanns said at the Nebraska Cattlemen’s Midyear Meeting Friday. “However, the more I got out across the country and talked to cattlemen, the more I realized they wanted the choice to do if it benefited them, or the choice not to do it. So, we left it there and didn’t make it mandatory. The new system, I believe, is a way to make it mandatory.”

Meanwhile, there is support for a NAIS-like system among animal rights groups. The National Association of Farm Animal Welfare, for example, says it prefers animal tags to hot iron brands. 

The USDA has two more meetings scheduled on animal traceability. The first is June 24 in Salt Lake City, Utah. And there will be a meeting July 1 in Fort Worth, Texas. Details on these hearings can be found on the USDA’s “Animal Disease Traceability” page. 



News Briefs