USDA’s ID Decision Leaves U.S. Vulnerable

February 15, 2010 06:00 PM

By Jim Dickrell

Critics of USDA's National Animal Identification System (NAIS) were celebrating last week after the Ag Department announced that it was going back to square one on NAIS. But this may be a case of being careful what you wish for.

In its announcement Feb. 5, USDA says it wants to develop a new, more flexible framework for disease traceability incorporating the four following tenets:

• Federal animal ID rules will only apply to animals moving interstate.

• The program will be administered by states and Tribal Nations to provide flexibility.

• The program will encourage the use of lower cost technologies, including freeze and hot brands.

• The program will be implemented transparently through federal rulemaking.

USDA will convene a forum next month "to initiate dialogue” about how to develop such a system. The plan is to have a proposed rule published by next winter with the requisite 90-day comment period to follow. After that, it's anyone's guess when—or if—the new rule will be become law. After that, more time will be needed, perhaps years, for states to implement.

This new start on national animal ID effectively pushes back trace-back efforts nearly a decade, when USDA first started talking about such a system in 2001, says Robert Fourdraine, CEO of the Wisconsin Livestock Identification Consortium.

If there is any good news, it's that states haven't been standing still this past decade. "I'm glad that in Wisconsin and Michigan we didn't waste our time and we developed our own systems,” he says. Both states mandate premise registration, for example. "But we don't want to become an island—or create 50 islands within 50 states, each with its own system,” he says.

The other wild card is international trade. With some 10% of U.S. milk solids, 10% of U.S. beef and nearly a quarter of U.S. pork now being marketed overseas, we are increasingly vulnerable to internal market disruptions when trade goes awry. If anyone doubts this, think back just a year ago when export markets dried up for a third to a half of U.S. dairy exports. Imagine what could happen, will happen, if the U.S. experiences a major disease outbreak and exports are completely halted.

The U.S. desperately needs a national system that can assure world markets we can trace, track and control diseases quickly. Without a nationally integrated system, 48-hour trace-back will be all but impossible. High-volume livestock markets will be hard-pressed to read and accurately record metal ear tags, tattoos, or even brands as hundreds of animals pass through their auction rings daily.

USDA's new approach doesn't change the fact that states have been and will continue to be responsible for identifying and tracking animal diseases within their borders. Several Midwest state veterinarians I talked with actually welcomed USDA's decision. The impression I got was that all the anti-NAIS rhetoric was simply getting in the way of moving forward. Minnesota, for example, even proposed a more state-centric approach.

Bill Hartmann, Minnesota State Veterinarian, says his agency is already using USDA's generic database to register premises, administer disease control programs and track animals. Under USDA's new plan, states will presumably be allowed to continue to use that generic system, or develop systems of their own. "I don't see that as a big issue as long as the data is compatible,” Hartmann says.

But therein lies the rub.
So far, the states have been able to work together to trace animals. But these cases have involved slow-moving diseases such as Brucellosis or Bovine TB.

An outbreak of a highly contagious disease, such as foot-and-mouth disease, would be an exponentially more difficult challenge. Such as outbreak would shut down animal movement and milk shipments for days, perhaps weeks, perhaps longer. No one would be immune. Not conventional producers. Not organic producers.

The very same people who claim NAIS is an infringement on their privacy rights and is too expensive would be the first screaming at USDA to fix the problem—and compensate them for their losses. No one wants big government until big government is needed. Be careful what you wish for.


Jim Dickrell is editor of Dairy Today. Contact him at

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