USDA Changes Course, Sends Animal-ID Requirement to States

Stateline Midwest, a publication of the Midwestern Office of the Council of State Governments: Vol 19, No. 3: March 2010.

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The U.S. Department of Agriculture has scrapped its National Animal Identification System (NAIS), which was more than five years and $120 million in the making.

The controversial program, which had less than 36 percent of livestock producers participating, will be replaced with a new state-led effort to ensure that sick and at-risk animals can be traced in the case of a disease outbreak.

The new framework for a national animal-disease traceability system marks a significant change from the approach taken under NAIS.

The new program, for example, will mandate that states be able to track back all animals involved in interstate commerce. (NAIS  had gone from being mandatory to voluntary, though states were still being strongly encouraged, and receiving financial incentives, to adopt it.)

Standards and performance measures for the new system will be set at the federal level, but states will be left to make their own decisions on what traceability systems to use: branding, metal tags and radio-frequency identification (RFID) are among the animal-ID options likely to be accepted by the USDA.

Federal officials are pledging to work with state and industry leaders to ensure that the new system encourages the use of “lower-cost technology.” And they want to make free or low-cost animal-identification tags an option for producers.

A series of USDA-sponsored listening sessions held across the country revealed the extent of concerns — costs, confidentiality, privacy, liability and data security among them — about NAIS. In recent years, reflecting unease about the national tracking system, bills to limit involvement have been proposed in several Midwestern state legislatures.

Conversely, some states in the region have gone ahead with mandatory programs of their own. Wisconsin and Indiana now require premises registration, and in Michigan, cattle must be identified with RFID ear tags.

The Wisconsin program is overseen by the public-private Wisconsin Livestock Identification Consortium. Robert Fourdraine, chief operating officer of the consortium, says experiences in his own state raise some questions about the practicality of USDA’s new approach.

“Wisconsin, because of the presence of chronic wasting disease, requires individual animal identification with ear tags for deer and elk,” he says, “yet a load of elk was recently refused entrance into Pennsylvania because [Wisconsin’s] ear tags differed from [Pennsylvania’s].”

“Imagine if we have 50 states and dozens of tribes determining their own method of identifying animals.”

Still, lawmakers such as South Dakota Republican Sen. Larry Rhoden of Union Center and Illinois Republican Rep. Richard Myers of Macomb welcome a change in USDA policy that shifts more responsibility to the states — so long as federal funding comes with it.

“One of the problems with NAIS for producers in my region was the increased cost of individual animal identification with no increased returns at the market,” Myers notes.

As for the impact of the rules themselves, Michael Coe, a veterinarian with Global Animal Management, foresees the “USDA requiring processors to be able to read and record each animal’s identification number as part of the traceability requirement.” As a result, he says, processors will likely pressure their suppliers to have a workable animal-ID system in place.

Because the stakes are so high for animal agriculture, Coe says, it is critical for state lawmakers to get involved in the USDA rulemaking process.