September 01, 2009

 

 Future of animal ID system unclear

 
 

Some animal owners express opposition during public meetings on the NAIS

posted August 15, 2009
 

Ear tag

Facing resistance from food animal owners and pressure from Congress, federal agriculture officials are reconsidering how the national animal disease tracing system is structured.

Officials with the Department of Agriculture said they heard substantial support for animal disease traceability during a series of public meetings but many animal owners indicated concerns. Cost, privacy, bureaucracy, liability in the event of a disease outbreak, and the religious implications of such animal identification are behind ongoing opposition to the department's National Animal Identification System.

The USDA has not gotten enough food animal producers to participate in the NAIS to achieve the desired animal tracing ability, and members of Congress have expressed frustration over funding the program. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack delivered this message to the stakeholders in animal agriculture who attended a May 21 meeting in Birmingham, Ala., according to a meeting transcript.

"I know there are very strong feelings on all sides of this issue, but I don't want us to get to the point where Congress says they will not continue to fund the system," Vilsack said. "If that were to happen, I would doubt the reliability of our market, and that's not where we want to be."

Vilsack said the USDA needs to hear from and accommodate people with concerns about how a disease tracing system would be administered. He said the U.S. needs such a system to market its livestock as the "highest quality and best in the world."

Neil Hammerschmidt, program coordinator for the NAIS, told JAVMA that individuals who were concerned about the government program were most highly represented at the 15 meetings of USDA officials and stakeholders held between April 15 and June 30.

"We certainly heard the ongoing negative concerns or concerns about NAIS putting the small producer out of business—concerns about premises registration causing one to give up the rights to their property," Hammerschmidt said. "And so, a lot of the concerns that were expressed were certainly concerns that had been presented prior to these meetings, but it certainly was a good process in letting individuals air their concerns maybe more publicly and clearly."

About 525,000 premises were registered with the NAIS by July 5, according to the USDA. They account for about 36.5 percent of the estimated 1.44 million premises in the United States.

The AVMA has supported implementation of a mandatory version of the NAIS. In March, Dr. W. Ron DeHaven, AVMA CEO, testified before the House Subcommittee on Livestock, Dairy, and Poultry that the United States could not afford to wait for a crisis to implement a mandatory program that could quickly control disease in the food supply, find out where diseased animals have been, help protect public and animal health, and help safeguard against billions of dollars in losses.

Hammerschmidt said the recent listening sessions provided an opportunity for individuals to express support for the NAIS. USDA officials also heard they need to clearly, carefully, and consistently tell stakeholders what they are planning.

In a transcript from the May 21 NAIS meeting in Birmingham, comments from livestock owners and industry members range from polite criticism to open hostility toward proponents of the government-run identification system.

A large number of the critics indicated they think the NAIS favors large animal producers over small ones because of allowances for group animal identification and economies of scale. Some questioned whether such a system would actually improve the ability to trace disease.

The transcript includes a few short speeches about alleged lies and conspiracies. Some of those speech givers expressed their beliefs that government officials had arranged the meetings to give attendees the false impression that their input could impact government policy regarding the NAIS. One man said he and "a growing consensus of us with common sense" were willing to die for their beliefs and asked the USDA employees if they were willing to die to implement the NAIS.

The transcript says the man's comment was followed by applause.

Dr. David L. Morris, senior staff veterinarian with the USDA Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service's Veterinary Services, told JAVMA the dialogues with producers indicated both large-scale and small-scale producers understood the importance of animal disease traceability and surveillance. How the USDA could improve traceability and surveillance—whether through the current format for the NAIS or a new direction—was yet to be determined.

"The support for the need and the importance of animal disease traceability certainly supports continuing our efforts," Dr. Morris said.

Hammerschmidt said the meetings were not intended to "sell" or promote participation in the NAIS, but to listen to issues important to stakeholders.

"I think the (agriculture) secretary and his staff will certainly continue to look at animal ID," Hammershmidt said. "Decisions will be made on where we take traceability, what shape, form it looks like."

In addition to the listening sessions, the USDA solicited public comments and Secretary Vilsack held roundtable discussions to understand stakeholders' perspectives, Hammerschmidt said. Though the department faces a substantial task in resolving those issues, he said he thinks the process was viable.

In the initial roundtable with Secretary Vilsack April 15, representatives from organizations favoring and opposed to the NAIS provided comments on the need to maintain or discard the system.

Adam Griffin, dairy identification programs manager for Holstein Association USA, said implementation of a mandatory national animal identification program is one of his organization's top priorities, a transcript from the meeting states. He said the cost of such a system is far less than the potential costs of not having one, and he countered arguments about confidentiality concerns by stating that consumers have a right to know where their food originates.

"Currently in the U.S., it takes months for animal health officials to complete an investigation of the animal disease events because records are often at best kept on paper," Griffin stated. "The lack of a good national program makes traceability a huge challenge."

Judith McGeary, executive director of Farm and Ranch Freedom Alliance, said the NAIS is not a productive tool for improving animal health, food security, or food safety. She said a 2005 Government Accountability Office analysis did not indicate that traceability is needed to improve disease or agroterrorism protection. She also said the cost of the electronic infrastructure favors large producers and that problems in the food safety system are connected with slaughterhouses and processing facilities.

"What we need is to decentralize and support regional food systems and small producers," McGeary stated. "NAIS, unfortunately, does the exact opposite. NAIS tries to substitute high-tech solutions for the inherent food safety that comes from diversity."

McGeary also argued for increased disease recognition training for veterinarians, import inspections, and enforcement of slaughterhouse and processing facility regulations, as well as starting a traceback system at slaughterhouses.

Hammerschmidt could not say whether the NAIS would take a different direction, but disease traceability remains a priority for the USDA. Meeting attendees indicated they support other existing surveillance and identification programs, so Hammerschmidt thinks traceability could be presented differently but still provide unique animal identification to a source location.

Dr. Morris said an effective system needs unique individual or group animal identification that can be used to track where animals were at any given time. The USDA must determine how to best standardize such systems across 50 states and "a multitude" of animal health programs.

"We know animal disease is not going to go away," Dr. Morris said. "We just have to fine-tune and enhance our effectiveness and efficiencies in being able to respond to those animal disease concerns."

Joelle Schelhaus, a USDA-APHIS spokeswoman, said in early July the secretary of agriculture's office was studying feedback on the NAIS to make a decision on what will happen to the program.

The USDA closed the listening tour comment period Aug. 3. Comments were submitted at www.regulations.gov.