USDA scraps NAIS, plans to develop state-based tracing system

Agency cites resistance to voluntary federal program in changing approach
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Agriculture officials are replacing the national program to trace animal origins during disease outbreaks with a state-administered system.

The Department of Agriculture announced Feb. 5 the agency would take a different direction than was charted through the National Animal Identification System. The new system is expected to leave identification and tracing programs with the states and tribal territories rather than with the USDA Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service.

The new program will apply only to animals moving in interstate commerce into marketing channels, with disease traceability required for those animals, USDA information states. States and tribal nations will determine how to meet minimum traceability requirements.

The federal government had already spent more than $120 million on the nationwide program, but only 36 percent—or about 500,000—of U.S. animal producers were participating, according to the USDA. The agency hosted public meetings on the NAIS across the country in spring and summer 2009 and indicated that most participants were "highly critical" of the program.

Illustration: Livestock monitoring

"Some of the concerns and criticisms raised included confidentiality, liability, cost, privacy, and religion," USDA information states. "There were also concerns about NAIS being the wrong priority for USDA, that the system benefits only large-scale producers, and that NAIS is unnecessary because existing animal identification systems are sufficient."

Joelle Hayden, a USDA-APHIS spokeswoman, said her agency would adapt as many NAIS elements as possible for use in state systems—particularly information technology infrastructure and animal identification tags.

"However, it will be up to the states and tribal nations to decide how they want to use them, if at all," she said.

The USDA first announced in late 2003 the agency would implement a system to rapidly trace the origins of animals exposed during disease outbreaks and identify the facilities they were from, and the agency implemented components in subsequent years. The three-part system involved registration of production and other animal-holding facilities, registration of animals individually or in lots, and the use of scanners or readers where animals were sold.

In encouraging animal producers to participate in the NAIS, the USDA previously noted investigators spent an average of 199 days tracing the origins of each of 27 bovine tuberculosis cases discovered between October 2005 and August 2007 and that investigators were not able to find the origin of a cow in which bovine spongiform encephalopathy was diagnosed in 2006.

Dr. W. Ron DeHaven, AVMA CEO and former administrator of the USDA-APHIS, has advocated for implementation of a strong, mandatory trace-back system. In March 2009, he testified for the AVMA before the House of Representatives Subcommittee on Livestock, Dairy, and Poultry that full producer participation in the NAIS could save millions of animals and billions of dollars by providing the ability to quickly contain and eradicate diseases.

Following the Feb. 5 APHIS announcement, Dr. DeHaven expressed concern about the decision to create a new disease traceability system. He said the USDA developed a solid framework for the NAIS, and the new proposal amounts to starting over from scratch.

"If each state is allowed to develop and implement its own program, important questions arise concerning communication and coordination between the states and tribal nations," Dr. DeHaven said. "Is it feasible to have 50 or more different programs at the state level and still have a coordinated disease response as animals move interstate throughout the country?

"Clearly the USDA must create a system that allows for quick and accurate trace back across state borders in an animal disease emergency, or there is no point in the new system."

Dr. John Clifford, deputy administrator for the USDA-APHIS Veterinary Services, said in a conference call with some stakeholders that the new program is intended to have more flexibility for states and tribal nations to meet local needs, incorporate low-cost identification means, create less intrusion by the federal government, and allow for adoption of systems with more producer accountability.

The cost of the new system was not immediately available, but the USDA indicated it will work with existing disease-control programs and allow identification means such as branding, metal tags, and radio frequency identification tags. The agency will work with states, tribal nations, industry, and the public to set minimum requirements that would still allow for efficient movement of animals.

USDA officials had previously hoped the NAIS would help investigators trace the origins of all animals exposed to an outbreak of disease within 48 hours.

Dr. Clifford said the new system would not focus on speed but on effectiveness and thorough implementation. He said the speed of any tracing would depend on the sophistication of systems adopted by each state.

Hayden said the USDA will strengthen its defenses against foreign animal disease by developing a rule to prevent highly pathogenic avian influenza from reaching the country, updating an analysis on how animal diseases reach the U.S., improving response capabilities, and working with states and industry to improve collaboration and analysis of disease risks.

The AVMA cannot consider endorsing the current plan until more information is available, Dr. DeHaven said. He noted that implementation of the new program is estimated to take between 18 months and five years, and he is concerned the nation will be vulnerable during that time.

"Our lack of animal traceability for disease control and eradication purposes not only has huge economic implications, it can also increase animal suffering exponentially if we are not able to quickly contain a disease outbreak," Dr. DeHaven said.

He also said it is critical that veterinarians be involved in development of the new system to ensure it will work in the field.