USDA seeking veterinarians' help in promoting NAIS

Nationwide identification system to be used for disease, contamination control
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Investigators spent an average of 199 days tracing the sources of animals infected with bovine tuberculosis between October 2005 and August 2007, according to information from the Department of Agriculture.

Export sanctions connected with a Newcastle disease outbreak in 2002 and 2003 cost nearly $1 million weekly in lost income, department information states.

Animal identification
Cows won't have passports under the NAIS, but their identification tags can be used to track their movements throughout the country.

Dr. John Clifford, deputy administrator of Veterinary Services for the USDA Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, said the National Animal Identification System could eventually allow inspectors to trace the origin and movements of diseased food animals within 48 hours.

"With a disease such as foot-and-mouth disease, the advantage of having 48-hour traceability is the ability to not only find it but to get out in front of it," Dr. Clifford said.

Dr. W. Ron DeHaven, AVMA CEO and previously the administrator of the USDA-APHIS, said the NAIS can reduce the number of animals affected by a highly contagious disease and thereby not only minimize economic losses but also minimize the pain and suffering of animals.

"We can't afford to wait until we have a major outbreak to have a system in place," Dr. DeHaven said.

Seeking veterinarians' aid

USDA officials have been asking veterinarians to help persuade farmers and ranchers of the need to register their premises with the NAIS. The department has published online an eletronic tool kit containing information veterinarians could use in registering their own facilities or persuading producers to do the same.

By December 2008, about 492,000 or a third of the nation's food animal production facilities were registered with the national system.

A rancher applies an ear tag to a sheep
A rancher applies an ear tag to a sheep at a ranch in Arizona.

Dr. DeHaven said he encourages veterinarians to register clinics or hospitals if they hold or treat livestock or horses, register their premises if they own livestock or horses, and explain to food producers the importance of the system and encourage them to register their premises.

"Nobody has more trust or credibility with the livestock owner than the owner's veterinarian," Dr. DeHaven said.


Neil Hammerschmidt, program coordinator for the NAIS, said premises registration, a free sign-up that provides facilities with unique national identification numbers, can help authorities contain disease by quickly locating producers in an area. It can also keep markets open by identifying areas not affected in an outbreak, according to the USDA.

"As big and diverse as our industries are, having a realistic approach to implementation is critical, and I think that's a key positive attribute of the current plan: that we prioritized integration of NAIS standards into state and federal livestock disease programs, allowing those same standards to be used in voluntary use beyond disease programs," Hammerschmidt said.

Premises registration is the first NAIS component for participating producers. The other two components being implemented are animal registration individually or in lots—after the premises are registered—and installation of scanners and readers in market channels.

"Veterinarians should be a critical component of this and have the understanding why it's so important for this program to be implemented," Dr. Clifford said. "And, therefore, I also think that they have a role as well as a duty to help implement this type of program."

Support versus mistrust

Dr. M. Gatz Riddell, executive vice president of the American Association of Bovine Practitioners, said his organization has supported the NAIS because of the need during an outbreak to quickly trace back where an animal has been, particularly during foreign animal disease outbreaks or acts of bioterrorism. AABP members have taken varied positions on the issue, however.

"We have some members who are adamant that a mandatory animal ID program is important, and then we have other members who are 180 degrees opposite," Dr. Riddell said. "They look at it as excessive government oversight."

In 2007, the American Association of Swine Veterinarians adopted a position supporting premises registration among members and their clients.

"Premises registration forms the basis of an effective disease management program," according to the position.

Dr. Tom Burkgren, AASV executive director, said the association will run promotional advertisements in its publications and hold outreach sessions at regional meetings to encourage premises registration.

The Academy of Veterinary Consultants has not taken a position on the NAIS.

Dr. James O. Cook, 2008-2009 AVMA president, said he expects the NAIS will benefit good food producers and expose others for poor practices.

"It would allow producers who are purchasing livestock to know where the animals came from and, with the sophistication of diagnostic tests today, they could get animals they know have been preconditioned the way they want them preconditioned and are suitable for their needs," Dr. Cook said.

Dr. Cook knows of one producer who had steers from different locations commingling before they were to be sent to a feedlot, and there were problems with one small group of those steers.

"Had he been able to trace back where they came from, he could have avoided purchasing animals from that particular premise again," Dr. Cook said.

The Government Accountability Office stated in a July 2007 report that most of the 32 animal identification experts surveyed indicated the NAIS will "likely need to become mandatory to achieve the levels of participation that are necessary to rapidly and effectively locate all potentially exposed animals in a disease trace back."

In the surveys, 27 said they thought more than 80 percent of producers need to register for NAIS to be effective, 27 said more than 90 percent of livestock markets need to register, and 28 said between more than 90 percent of slaughter facilities need to register.

Dr. Cook said he expects NAIS registration will become mandatory, a change he supports. He said the Department of Homeland Security and USDA could easily recognize the benefits of a mandatory system.

Indiana requires premises registration for some species of food animals, including cattle. Wisconsin requires premises registration for all food animal producers, and Michigan requires radio frequency identification tags on all cattle prior to movement. Those three states' producers accounted for about a quarter of the premises registered with the NAIS nationwide when the GAO report was released.

Meghan Pusey, spokeswoman for the National Cattlemen's Beef Association, said her organization supports the NAIS and premises registration by cattle producers, provided participation remains voluntary.

"NCBA feels producer rights and confidentiality are a top priority," Pusey said.

Will Harrison, a beef producer from Elwood Ranch in Bella Vista, Calif., said he signed up for the NAIS when it was expected to become mandatory, and he was initially hesitant because of privacy concerns. He now uses participation as a marketing tool, and he said he has had few problems while taking part in a pilot program that covered some startup costs.

Dr. Clifford said some groups see the NAIS as an invasion of privacy because of misconceptions and misrepresentations of what data are being collected and used by the government. In truth, most information collected for premises registration is similar to that in a phone book.

Ohio attorney Karin C. Bergener, JD, opposes a mandatory NAIS or a system in which people are "coerced" into registration. She is a steering committee member for Liberty Ark Coalition, a group formed to fight implementation of the NAIS and equivalent state systems.

"I'm not opposed to a market-driven, privately run animal verification, source verification system," Bergener said, adding the provision that such a system should involve producers who join because they see the value.

Bergener said she has seen no evidence the NAIS will improve disease control or that 48-hour source reporting would improve public health, and she has not received a response to requests to see any government studies that show such a system would be effective.

Gary Wilson, manager of animal identification systems for the Ohio Department of Agriculture's Division of Animal Industry, is a member of the NAIS Advisory Subcommittee to the USDA Foreign Animal and Poultry Diseases Advisory Committee, and co-chair of the NAIS Cattle Industry Working Group. Wilson said the NAIS is designed to confine outbreaks to small, manageable areas. A functioning NAIS could allow state veterinarians and federal authorities to more effectively and efficiently concentrate staff, time, money, and energy on areas of concern, he said.

Bergener contends that full implementation of the NAIS would impose costs of $60 to $70 per head for animals registered by producers.

USDA figures differ from Bergener's; they indicate the identification would cost between $1.20 each for plastic ear tags and $20 each for injectable transponders. Those costs do not include animal tracking database fees, which could cost less than $1 per animal, or costs for owners who do not install the devices themselves.

Bergener said a source verification system could help participants gain premium prices in international trade with countries where citizens are convinced of the need for source verification. She said those participants should fund the system with their premiums.

Bergener alleges she has seen instances in which NAIS participation has been forced or coerced by state government officials. For example, Bergener said state authorities in North Carolina bought hay during a drought, offered to sell it to farmers, and when they showed up, told them they could receive hay only if they registered with the NAIS.

Dr. Tom Ray, director of livestock health programs for the state of North Carolina, said the state bought and shipped in hay during 2007, and there were concerns over possible problems such as infestations with blister beetles or fire ants. Those risks necessitated the ability to find anyone who received hay from a bad batch, and the state commissioner of agriculture asked that participants receive and provide premises identification numbers.

The state allowed one man to receive hay without an identification number after he expressed feelings he was being tricked into registering, Dr. Ray said.

Warning against complacency

From an AVMA perspective, Dr. DeHaven said identification is important for all animals, whether to rejoin lost pets with owners or to help prevent the spread of disease in livestock.

Hammerschmidt said the degree of animal identification has decreased with eradication of some diseases. More animals were vaccinated and tagged 15 years ago because of brucellosis, for example.

"As that practice is phased out because of the near eradication of that disease, the void in individual ID has increased," Hammerschmidt said.

Information from the USDA states animal agriculture has made progress in reducing disease in horses and agricultural animals, but it warns against complacency. Department statements indicate reduced participation in disease programs, increased interstate and foreign movement of animals and germ plasm, and key differences in the way species are managed are challenging factors in disease control.