To the elation of its vocal critics, earlier this month USDA gutted its voluntary National Animal Identification System (NAIS) after nearly 10 years of development. The agency is shifting its focus away from animal identification toward animal traceability, which is really just a matter of semantics, but the announcement was greeted with great joy by anti-NAIS voices.

The USDA’s announcement to fold their tent on the current NAIS proposals is an all-too-rare victory of the nation’s family farmers over the political power of corporate agribusiness, says Mark Kastel, senior farm policy analyst at the Cornucopia Institute.

In its place, USDA promises to develop a new, flexible framework for U.S. animal disease traceability, and undertake several other actions to further strengthen its disease prevention and response capabilities. In this “new and improved system,” each state or tribal authority bears the administrative responsibility.

The action comes after USDA took a beating during its 15-city NAIS listening tour last fall over things like system cost, liability, confidentiality and who holds the data. These questions have bubbled and fermented since the concept was first introduced in 2002 as a means to trace an animal back to its farm of origin within 48 hours in case of disease or other public emergency.

Despite USDA’s (and others) best attempts to address these concerns and the endorsement of livestock industry segments, including the pork and dairy industries, the rumbles became a roar. The result of which is this new traceability track.

Meanwhile, every day, animals continue to move throughout the country, and it will take months, if not years, to get a new system fully operational.

However, just as before, there are a number of issues that need to be worked out as the process moves forward. Most importantly, how will the system work with 50 different state premises identifiers and the wide variety of individual animal ID that can be used by producers?

“Clearly, 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,” the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) said in a recent statement. “There are many unanswered questions that must be addressed as this new animal disease traceability program is being developed. For that reason, the AVMA cannot consider endorsing this concept at this time."

The veterinary organization reaffirms its call for a strong, national animal disease traceability program to help maintain and improve the health of U.S. livestock.

Short of that, how can we best move forward given the current situation?

“Storing data locally and developing processes of how to report and record data are all best administered at the state level,” says Robert Fourdraine, chief operating officer of the Wisconsin Livestock Identification Consortium. “However, we need national standards to ensure we can communicate across states and industry. There has to be a common link.” USDA indicates that they will have an advisory group look into this, but it is an issue that has been around for years.
“We have a direction document at this point and it seems advisory groups will fill in the details,” Fourdraine adds. “We’ll see how this evolves further. Everyone has to remember that animals don’t just move interstate, they move within states, too.”

He asserts that recent cases of bovine tuberculosis in states like Nebraska, Texas, California and South Dakota underscore that livestock diseases can happen any time or any place, and can have a significant impact on producers’ ability to move and sell livestock both within and out of their state. Just ask producers with long-term bovine TB challenges like Michigan and Minnesota.

It only makes sense to develop a common set of standards and that each state adopts such standards. This will ensure that producers can move animals within and between states without the extra cost and management burden of multiple-system requirements and identification. And it will ensure that in the event of a disease outbreak, the systems can “talk” to each other. Otherwise, we’ll end up back where we began — only worse, because failure will mean further erosion of the public trust, and that’s not healthy for anyone.

The process to develop these standards kicks off next month when state and tribal animal health officials hold a two-day forum in Kansas City, Mo., March 18-19 to initiate a dialogue about the possible ways of achieving the flexible, coordinated approach to animal disease traceability USDA envisions.

The National Institute for Animal Agriculture will dedicate a portion of its March annual meeting immediately preceding this forum to give industry representatives and participants an opportunity to offer input — make sure you have a seat at the table.