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National Animal ID compelling, just not convincing
By Alan Guebert
Farm & Food File
When the USDA announced the discovery of the nation’s first Mad Cow in late Dec. 2003, consumers and ranchers were met by a government search-and-destroy blitz worthy of war.

Where had this cow been born? Where had it been? Where were its siblings, herd mates, offspring?

Contrast that breathless effort with news March 13 that USDA had confirmed the nation’s third case of Mad Cow.

USDA was coolly professional; it knew exactly what to look for and where. Consumers never even hiccupped while ordering their next Big Mac.

That difference - or indifference - is being mirrored in the slog towards a National Animal Identification System (NAIS). Four months after the 2003 Mad Cow made headlines, USDA announced a nationwide program to identify all premises and animals in “direct contact” with a “disease of concern” within 48 hours.

Back then, USDA wanted a single, private, national database to track the births, deaths and movement all American cattle, swine, sheep, goats, horses, poultry, bison, deer, elk, llamas and alpacas in case of a disease outbreak.

Now, however, that idea has been morphed into a “metadata portal,” techie talk for an electronic door opening to a room containing the stacks of federal, state and private animal ID databases already in existence.

Back then, there was stern talk of mandatory registration.

Now, however, NAIS’s first implementing step, the registration of animal “premises,” not animals, is voluntary.

The results reflect the changes. Despite all 50 states, five Native American tribes and two U.S. territories urging livestock owners to register animal premises since mid-2005, just 213,376 sites out of an estimated 2 million-plus have done so.

The slowdown, and USDA’s rejiggering of the ID program, has not been government fumbling, although USDA’s lowering of the bar makes any countrywide ID program appear less necessary.

The bigger brakes have been producers - even those and their livestock organizations that strongly endorsed NAIS in 2003 prefer slower going now. Slower because, by any standard of design and implementation, NAIS has the makings of a nightmare if not done correctly.

For example, NAIS critics and supporters alike deep-sixed USDA’s plan to create a single, national animal ID database. They rightly pointed out that USDA wished to re-invent databases already in existence; databases such as federally-mandated, state-implemented brucellosis and tuberculosis programs, state branding programs, producer group registries and the like.

Cost is another hold-up. No one knows what producers will pay per premise, per group of animals (as in the case of poultry) or per animal if and when national ID is in place. So far, USDA has spent $33 million in 2004 and 2005 to set the stage for NAIS; its ID budget for 2006 is another $33 million.

But that’s chickenfeed compared to what a fully implemented program might cost. At $2 per head for cattle, hogs, horses, goats, bison, and sheep, national ID would cost - what? - something north of $300 million to get started and untold millions per year to maintain?

It’s a guess because neither USDA nor the private industry NAIS supporters have conducted a cost-benefit analysis on the program. Moreover, who’s going to pay for this? USDA “envisions” the cost will “be cooperatively shared between the federal and state governments along with producers,” but nothing, to date, has been decided or even proposed.

Worrisome, too, is the data. Critics want state and federal governments, not private industry as USDA suggests, to compile, manage and own it.

Even then, however, data protection is suspect. On Feb. 15, USDA sheepishly admitted that a private contractor working for the Farm Service Agency mistakenly released the Social Security and tax identification numbers of 350,000 participants in its tobacco buyout program. (USDA got the data back.)

Another question: If NAIS, then COOL? After all, national animal ID should make country of origin labeling a snap.

Then there’s the biggie: liability. Who will pay if traceback fingers producers for, say, E. coli contamination? Again, nothing has been decided.

In short, the case for national animal ID is compelling but not convincing. Too many questions; too few answers.

3/29/2006