Resistance Is Spreading

By Doug Bartholomew Print this article Print

The nationwide rollout of the USDA’s animal identification system is slow to gain acceptance, even though the RFID technology it is based on is being used to track millions of manufacturing parts and billions of dollars in retail inventory.

Resistance Is Spreading

Despite this support, thousands of small farmers are resisting the NAIS rollout and refusing to allow their animals to be tagged and tracked. Some complain about the $1.50-per-tag cost, as well as the labor involved in tagging hundreds of animals. (For information about other industries that initially balked at the technology’s price tag, read “Cows, Planes and Trains,” above.) Ironically, in many instances, these same animals have already been branded by the ranch and/or been tagged with IDs reflecting earlier species-specific ID systems.

Others oppose the animal numbering and tracking systems for different reasons. For instance, many Amish and Mennonite farmers have quit agriculture as a result of NAIS, claiming the Bush plan is a sign of the “mark of the beast” foretold in the Bible’s Book of Revelation. In a letter to Wisconsin agriculture officials, a group of Old Order Amish farmers said the “premises registration animal ID issue is an act of the anti-Christ.”

Raising still other objections, a group of farmers and ranchers established the Farm and Ranch Freedom Alliance (FARFA) in Austin, Texas, to champion the anti-NAIS cause. “NAIS is a significant invasion of privacy,” says Executive Director Judith McGeary. “The events that would be reportable [to a NAIS database] would be normal everyday events, such as selling, bringing animals to the vet, showing and butchering. This is a significant intrusion into people’s daily lives.”

FARFA also questions whether NAIS is really necessary. “We have existing animal-tracking programs,” says McGeary, who raises grass-fed lamb, free-range poultry and laying hens. “There is absolutely no evidence that this is an improvement over existing methods of tracking animal diseases.” She cites three recent instances of tuberculosis outbreaks among cattle in California that were traced using existing methods.

“Plus, technology is expensive, and it carries its own problems,” McGeary adds. “We question whether this is a good business decision—unless, of course, it’s for the people who are selling something for NAIS.”

Some in the industry even question whether NAIS will be up to the task if a real outbreak of bovine, equine or porcine disease strikes. One reason for the concern is the limited enrollment of farms and ranches to date, as well as the even lower success achieved in animal tagging. As of August 2007, the USDA had allocated just 2 million AIN tags under NAIS. The federal agency estimates it will order up to 35 million AIN tags per year.

“Until there is an actual outbreak, we are not going to know how effective NAIS is,” says Andy Kennedy, president of Food Logic, a Durham, N.C., company that developed a similar Canadian system, as well as one for the Wisconsin Livestock Identification Consortium.

“The standards in the United States are fairly loose,” he adds, “and the information is fairly spotty, because only a small number of animals are actually identified. If there were an outbreak, they would not make a dent in it with this limited ID system. They’d have to use commercial sales records to do the traceback. It would be hard to identify a U.S. herd of origin.”

Even without any opposition, the NAIS initiative is a mammoth undertaking: It involves registering more than a million farms and ranches, tagging tens of millions of animals, and placing RFID readers at thousands of slaughterhouses, auction sites, state fairs, racetracks and other locations.

As of March, only 452,889 premises had been registered—about 31.5 percent of the total. Out of the 50 states, only 12 had signed up half or more of the farms, ranches and other premises within their borders. Although the USDA doesn’t publish the number of animals tagged, those close to the program believe it’s a small percentage of the total population of each species.

The lack of success certainly isn’t for want of funding. The USDA will have spent $130 million over a five-year period from fiscal year 2004 through 2008 on implementing NAIS.

Despite substantial funding for technology, data integration issues remain a challenge. “There will be data integration problems and significant issues with data compatibility,” Kennedy says. Until a large majority of U.S. farms and ranches use the uniform NAIS 15-digit numbering system, it will be difficult to implement a successful traceback using NAIS.

In addition, the USDA has been lax in enforcing standards in premises registration. Currently, 40 states use the NAIS Standard Premises Registration System. This Web-based application enables states and American Indian Tribes to assign a premises identification number obtained from the National Premises Information Repository, which then stores 12 data elements about that farm, ranch or animal-processing location.

The rest of the states use a different system, generally referred to as the Compliant Premises Registration Systems of the States. In order to upload their premises registration information to the National Premises Information Repository, this group must use an application programming interface called the Allocator.

This article was originally published on 2008-04-30
Doug Bartholomew is a career journalist who has covered information technology for more than 15 years. A former senior editor at IndustryWeek and InformationWeek, his freelance features have appeared in New York magazine and the Los Angeles Times Magazine. He has a B.S. in Journalism from Northwestern University.
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