Bovine Intervention

By Doug Bartholomew  |  Posted 2008-04-30

It was supposed to help stem an outbreak of mad-cow disease. Instead, the Bush administration’s proposal to electronically brand tens of millions of farm animals with RFID (radio-frequency identification) tags is producing some very angry farmers and ranchers.

The National Animal Identification System was conceived to track outbreaks of animal disease—whether as a result of natural causes or bioterrorism. The catalyst for NAIS was the 2003 mad-cow scare in Washington state, in which a single Canadian dairy cow, which entered the United States along with 81 other cows, was found to have bovine spongiform encephalopathy. Because there wasn’t an adequate traceback system, only 29 of the 81 cows could be identified, so agriculture officials were forced to oversee the destruction of more than 250 animals from 10 different herds.

The impact was dramatic: U.S. beef exports fell off a cliff, and sales have yet to return to pre-2003 levels.

In response, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) developed NAIS in 2004. It was intended to be a mandatory program, but was quickly made voluntary when farmers and ranchers complained that the government was forcing them to buy expensive technology.

Under the voluntary plan, the USDA has set a goal of registering all the nation’s 1.4 million farms and other premises where livestock are kept, and tagging at least 70 percent of the country’s 100 million cattle, 60 million pigs, and 10 million sheep and goats. Domestic critters get a waiver; every other animal in the barnyard must be tagged individually, or in the case of chickens, as a group. The list includes bison, alpacas, burros, llamas, mules, donkeys, horses, deer and elk that are raised for meat. Animals that never leave their home farm and are consumed there get a waiver.

The NAIS program consists of three parts: premises registration, animal identification tagging and animal tracking. NAIS participants order animal ID tags with numbers that are linked to their premises ID numbers. In general, the tags must be affixed to the ears of cattle, sheep, pigs or other animals bound for slaughterhouses, as well as those expected to be entered in competitions, such as 4H or county and state fairs, where they come in contact with other animals.

“If we find a tag in the course of a disease investigation, we can immediately determine its origin,” says Dave Wiklund, project manager for software development at the NAIS unit of the USDA. By entering the animal identification number (AIN) into the animal tracking database (ATD) for that state, an agriculture inspector can access the animal’s whereabouts from the time it left the premises of origin until it was slaughtered, to determine what other animals it came in contact with and where. The USDA’s stated goal is for the NAIS to enable investigators to trace back an outbreak of animal disease to the source within 48 hours.

The cattle industry generally supports limited participation in NAIS. For instance, though one of its goals is to “minimize direct federal involvement in agriculture,” the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association recommends that beef cattle producers register their premises under the NAIS. The industry trade group’s Web site states, “The organization supports a producer-led, market-driven animal identification system.”

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.

Ongoing Controversy

Another issue that has caused controversy concerns the involvement of private agriculture companies. When a disease outbreak occurs, state and federal animal health officials submit information requests to the animal tracking databases, which are intentionally not under the control of government officials. Instead, management of the ATDs has been assigned to several private agriculture companies, including MicroBeef Technologies, AgInfoLink and Global Animal Management.

Some of these companies were active in the National Institute for Animal Agriculture, the forerunner organization that pushed for the establishment of NAIS. “This was a very collaborative effort with state and private partners,” says USDA’s Wiklund.

Despite the reassurance of the USDA, the involvement of these private firms in maintaining the databases has further fueled the suspicion by some farmers that the companies that initially pushed for the technology did so primarily to further their own profit interests—not those of farmers or the public. But Wiklund counters that these vendors are not being paid. “No USDA funds have been expended for these companies to participate,” he says.

This has not quieted the critics, some of whom charge that the involvement of large agricultural interests in the genesis of NAIS may result in its eventual use as a nationwide system for managing large inventories of cloned animals used for food. Again, Wiklund disagrees. “NAIS is strictly for limiting the spread of animal disease—period,” he asserts.

Some state agriculture officials aren’t so sure about that. “NAIS is a traceability program for animal health only, but it could be used to provide additional benefits for producers, such as for inventory management,” says Victor Velez, NAIS program manager at the California Department of Food and Agriculture.

But Velez believes NAIS is necessary. “We’ve been issuing premises numbers for 30 years, so we don’t see this as a new development,” he says. “We have had mandatory animal health programs in California for many years, but the state is not isolated: Our producers import and export to other states.”

Although NAIS participation is voluntary, nearly all state agriculture departments support it. One obvious reason may be federal funding. The USDA has pledged $51 million to states and farm organizations to promote premises registration, but they can qualify only if they sign up enough farms to tag at least 70 percent of each species of farm animal in that state.

Wisconsin got a head start when, beginning in 2001, the Wisconsin Livestock Identification Consortium contracted with Food Logic to create a premises registration system. (The system’s software code was later modified by the USDA and used as the basis for the national premises ID system.)

“A high percentage of our economy in Wisconsin is dependent on cattle and the dairy industry,” says Robert Fourdraine, the consortium’s chief operating officer. “With 60,000 premises registered in Wisconsin, we are probably close to having 90 percent of all premises in the state, and more than 95 percent of the dairy cattle in the state have been ID tagged.”

Other states are lagging behind, and Food Logic’s Kennedy offers a possible explanation: He thinks the government took the wrong approach in trying to sell the animal ID program to farmers. “Animal health and bioterrorism didn’t resonate with farmers,” he says. “They worried that the government would funnel the information to the IRS, and that it just wanted to tax their cattle.”

A better approach for the USDA, according to Kennedy, would have been to give the NAIS a commercial spin, promoting it as a means to help farmers and producers brand their beef, thereby enabling them to command premium prices.

Money talks.