SALEM, Ohio – USDA has changed its attitude toward the National Animal Identification System, turning 180 degrees from what was previously to be a mandatory program to completely voluntary participation.
Bruce Knight, USDA undersecretary for marketing and regulatory programs, says it makes good sense to keep the program voluntary at the federal level.
He said producers from across the country told USDA in listening sessions they preferred a voluntary program that would leave choices dealing with their livelihoods and their business information in their own hands.
“The best way to enhance its momentum – and ultimate success – is to keep it voluntary at the federal level; inform producers of the system’s many benefits; and, at the end of the day, let them make the right decision for their operations and their livelihoods,” Knight said.
Goals. The national animal identification system (NAIS) is billed by USDA as a tool to help farmers and industry respond quickly to animal disease outbreaks or terrorism involving animals in the U.S.
The agriculture department says the system would also help maintain consumer confidence in the food chain, and assist with marketing animal agriculture both in the U.S. and abroad.
And at the heart of the system: knowing where the animals are, and how to contact their owners, in case of emergency.
Three parts. The system includes three parts: farm premises identification, individual animal identification and animal tracing.
The National Agricultural Statistics Service says there are more than 1.4 million farms in the U.S., and USDA has more than 335,000 of those already registered, according to the agency’s Web site.
Pennsylvania has nearly 26,000 of a total 42,000 premises registered, according to Ron Miller, who heads up the Keystone State’s animal ID program.
In Ohio, there are nearly 2,000 premises registered, according to Gary Wilson, the department of agriculture’s manager of animal identification systems.
That’s only about 5 percent of the total number of premises that could be identified in Ohio, Wilson said.
“That number says most producers are not seeing the value in the system at this point,” Wilson said.
Neighboring states have more premises registered, but have used existing records to issue identification numbers to farms. Ohio, on the other hand, isn’t reaching out to farmers; the farmers have to approach the state to get a premises number, Wilson said.
Wilson said USDA’s change to a voluntary system won’t affect identification on the state level in the short-term, and the state will continue to encourage voluntary participation.
“The state’s a little disappointed [USDA] has taken this [all voluntary] stance,” Wilson said. “The thought always was, to be effective, everyone needed to participate.”
Glad to hear it. Mike John, president of the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, said that group’s members have pushed for years for a voluntary and producer-led animal identification system.
John also said “while a government-mandated and government-controlled system may seem like an easier and quicker solution, NCBA has never viewed this as the answer.”
“We’ve always maintained that the industry could provide a more secure, confidential, and efficient solution that would be met with much less resistance and mistrust than a government mandate,” he said.
Deadline pressure. John also said USDA’s deadline – the agency was pushing for 25 percent of all premises to be registered, along with 5 percent of animals under 1 year of age identified by January 2007, and 100 percent of premises and animals in that age bracket to be identified within two years – was doing more harm than good in terms of producer participation.
“It lent fuel to protests and conspiracy theories, and really did nothing to give producers the information they needed to simply get involved,” John said.
John said the NCBA is urging members to learn about premises identification and the overall national identification program.
“What’s important now is that we actually capitalize on this important policy victory, and do everything we can to give voluntary, market-driven animal ID the momentum it needs to succeed,” John said.
Expectations. Ben Kaczmarski, a spokesperson for USDA’s Animal Plant Health Inspection Service, said by leaving the program in producers’ hands, USDA expects to see increased premises registration.
In addition, USDA expects attention that was previously focused on the program’s mandates may now be devoted to the program’s structure and benefits, Kaczmarski said.
States’ rights. Kaczmarski also said while USDA is not mandating the program be mandatory, states still have the right to make it compulsory.
Already, Wisconsin and Indiana have required premises identification. By March 2007, all Michigan farmers with cattle must have their premises identified, as well as having animals identified.
Kaczmarski said the Michigan requirement is a reaction to the state’s efforts to eradicate tuberculosis there.
(Reporter Andrea Myers welcomes reader feedback by phone at 800-837-3419 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.)