Some see the apocalypse. Others scoff at apocryphal stories about bogeyman federal agents controlling little kids' ponies. In our security-obsessed, post-September 11 world, a gigantic government bureaucracy is, some fear, springing to life for the sole purpose of controlling how and where individuals ride their horses. Or, others believe, a useful system of identifying horses in a disaster and dealing with contagious disease is on the horizon.
The National Animal Identification System (NAIS) is nothing if not controversial. Is it a full-fledged assault on privacy, or a benign accounting procedure meant to insure the safety of our nation's livestock?
The issue is inherently complicated and misinformation and rumors spread via the internet are further complicating the debate. The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) is developing NAIS to facilitate rapid containment of disease outbreaks among cattle, horses, chickens, swine and other livestock. It will create a massive identification system by which animals could be tracked from birth to death. NAIS would engage three separate but interlocking identification procedures, including:
n Registration of the premises housing livestock,
n Identification of individual animals and
Further complicating the debate among horse owners is the fact that, while a system for cattle, the first species to be addressed, is well under way, the section in the regulations covering horses is still blank. So all claims about the good or ill the program will do are, at this point, speculative.
The USDA says that premises identification is the linchpin of NAIS. In order to complete the registration, farms where animals are housed, regardless of herd size, will provide complete information about the premises location, owner, phone number, etc.
Animals on the premises will be assigned discrete Animal Identification Numbers (AIN)—either by individual animal or by lot. The USDA plans to use the AIN to track animals' movements and reportable incidents. The idea is to be able to identify, within 48 hours, animals that may have been exposed in the event of an outbreak of contagious disease.
Implicit in the AIN strategy is that those who own or control the animals will keep accurate records of the animals' movements, and relevant incidents. Proponents of NAIS feel that speed in tracing exposed animals back to the farms where they're housed allows valuable resources to be directed at limiting damage instead of finding exposed animals.
In 2001 an outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease (FMD) cost Great Britain's livestock industry more than $5 billion. Ten million sheep, pigs and cows were slaughtered, all livestock exports were banned, tourism suffered, many farmers lost their entire livelihoods and, in the frantic effort to control the outbreak, healthy animals were destroyed along with the sick ones. Because FMD is so contagious and easily transmitted, it was hard to segregate healthy animals from those that were sick or exposed to sick animals. A well-designed animal identification and tracking system would have helped minimize the loss of healthy livestock.
To date the USDA has taken no action to make NAIS mandatory. A NAIS guide released by the USDA on June 2 states unequivocally that participation in NAIS is voluntary. The next paragraph points out that, if voluntary compliance doesn't rise to an acceptable level of participation, regulations might become necessary. The threshold of "acceptable" remains unknown.
Pennsylvania legislation is moving forward
Many state legislatures -- including Pennsylvania's—are operating as if federal regulations will ultimately mandate compliance. Senate Bill 865, which is currently wending its way through the Pennsylvania legislature, makes premises identification mandatory. According to Kristin Ebersole, Executive Director of the Senate Agriculture and Rural Affairs Committee, the bill has been voted out of the Appropriations Committee, is on the Senate calendar and may be ready for a vote as early as late June. SB 865 does not address the other two aspects of the USDA's program: animal identification and tracking.
Ebersole says the legislature's intent is not to create a burden or a threat to farmers' privacy. "You hear a lot about Big Brother looking over your shoulder, and that's not what this is about." She said that the legislation specifically exempts information from the Right to Know Law, the state's version of the Freedom of Information statute, and that privacy and confidentiality are top priorities. She recognizes that the issue is controversial, but also sees the reality of life in America in 2006. "One of the reasons, obviously in this day and age, we're facing not just natural but man-made threats," she explains. And those threats demand attention before they become realities. "We have no desire to be heavy handed. Anyone involved in any state or federal program is already involved," because of certain reporting requirements.
The daunting task of making sure all farms are registered is made even more difficult by the task of informing people of exactly what NAIS is—and what it is not. Ebersole says that there are ramifications for farms that don't register. "The penalty for not getting involved is if there is some sort of outbreak, that individual will not be eligible for indemnity. If animals have to be destroyed, there is an indemnity program where the owners would be reimbursed" for some of the value.
The Roots of NAIS
NAIS gained traction after the first case of bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE)—also known as mad cow disease—was discovered in a Washington State herd in 2003. The discovery resulted in 70 countries imposing bans on importation of American beef. A consortium of cattle producers, USDA representatives and other interested parties began working in earnest on an animal identification plan. According to Amber Waves, a publication of the USDA, beef exports from US producers dropped from a record 2.5 billion pounds in 2003 to 461 million pounds in 2004. Clearly there's a strong economic incentive for US producers to ensure the health of our nation's livestock, in addition to the goal of protecting the health of consumers.
One of the US beef industry's largest customers, Japan, agreed on June 21, 2006, to resume imports contingent upon US production plants' passing inspections by Japanese teams of inspectors. Exports could begin by mid-July. The agreement is controversial and faces significant opposition in Japan. For one thing, the Australian beef industry has moved into the market and has largely offset the volume of sales the US producers lost. For another, there has been a great deal of angst among Japanese inspectors and consumers as they seek assurances that the products shipped from the US meet the highest standards. US beef producers are happy about resuming exports to Japan, but not about having American plants' being inspected by the Japanese.
US beef industry leaders had called for retaliatory sanctions aimed at Japan, and the National Cattlemen's Beef Association had voted to support legislation sponsored by Senator Ben Nelson (D-Nebraska) that would have prohibited importation of beef from Japan. Nelson said the cattlemen "know better than anyone how badly the one-sided beef embargo has hurt the U.S. economically. In Nebraska alone, it has cost us $875 million and the loss of 1300 jobs."
The range of political, public and economic pressure that can affect an industry with so much vested in exports creates a demand for solutions that persuade all constituents that no detail has been overlooked in the drive for safety. Numerous threats to livestock, including mad cow disease, avian flu, hoof and mouth disease, and the possibility of terrorist-introduced pathogens, are stoking interest in innovative, effective efforts to contain outbreaks of disease. The magnitude of these threats—alone or in aggregate—initially muted much of the resistance to a national identification program, although there is currently no shortage of outspoken opposition.
The internet has helped galvanize anti-NAIS activists, who oppose NAIS for many reasons. Some critics point out that the program would violate the religious beliefs of groups like the Amish, who oppose registering their farms and their livestock on religious grounds. Others cite Constitutional objections. Still others say the program would impose excessive costs on smaller farms that sell their livestock to local consumers. Other critics say that NAIS is a creation of big businesses—cattle producers and the makers of identification systems—that stand to gain both market share and windfall profits from NAIS.
Lawmakers concerned about progress and USDA communication
The USDA has been approved for nearly $85 million for NAIS through this year, according to the Des Moines Register. The fiscal year 2006 Agriculture Appropriations Act includes another $33 million for NAIS, according to the USDA. To date there is no actual infrastructure for collecting, maintaining and utilizing data, however.
The Des Moines Register reported in May that lawmakers in Washington are growing restive about NAIS and threatening to cut off funding unless the USDA gives the public—and legislators—a clear idea of how NAIS would work. There are concerns about the ambiguity regarding mandatory participation, liability issues and costs of monitoring devices. Would a producer be vulnerable to lawsuits if contaminated meat, diseased animals or some food borne illness were traced back to his farm—regardless of where contamination occurred? Lawmakers are also questioning whether enough has been heard from the small farms about how NAIS would affect them. "We just have not seen where they have made any real progress or what their system is," U.S. Rep. Tom Latham (R-Iowa), says about the USDA's plans.
In the global marketplace, the US livestock industry faces competitive challenges from countries that have already achieved nationwide animal identification programs. Australia is widely recognized as the pioneer in such programs, and has developed an effective mandatory animal identification program. According to a 2004 study for the USDA conducted by Kansas State University researchers, the US cattle industry is about four times as large as Australia's, and there are ten times as many cattle farms in the US. Additionally, Australia exports about 65 percent of the red meat they produce, whereas the US exports only about 10 percent. These differences may make the model unworkable.
Critics suggest that NAIS would create a staggering bureaucracy so overwhelmed with data and information that security would be hindered instead of helped. While the Australian model seems efficient and well-run, it operates on a much smaller scale and the process of educating producers there was far simpler. Americans are suspicious of government data collection, and, in light of recent events, have reason to question how safe private data are in the hands of the government. Recently the US Veterans Administration discovered that personal data on 26.5 million veterans had been stolen from a VA employee who had taken the data home on his laptop computer. Nor has government's recent performance in emergencies instilled confidence.
Mary Zanoni, the Executive Director of Farm for Life, has commented extensively on the issue of NAIS. She rails against what she sees as an illogical and lopsided government attempt to protect citizens. "Indeed, the only general systems of permanent registration of personal property in the United States are systems administered by the individual states for two items that are highly dangerous if misused: motor vehicles and guns. It is difficult to imagine any acceptable basis for the (USDA) to subject the owner of a chicken to more intrusive surveillance than the owner of a gun."
Clearly, the USDA needs to do a lot of work to rebuild the confidence of stakeholders in this debate, and in order to: ensure quick response to disease outbreaks; preserve our country's beef, pork and poultry export industry; protect the privacy of information the government collects; educate America's consumers and farmers about the rationale for NAIS; and strike the appropriate balance between government oversight and Americans' right to control their own possessions.
Horses and NAIS
Despite the emotional connections that often exist between people and their horses, equines are considered livestock, not companion animals like dogs and cats. It is a distinction that carries a very big difference in many ways. As the National Animal Identification System (NAIS) moves from concept to reality in America, the distinction becomes even larger.
"Horses are considered livestock at the Federal level for this program," explains Kristin Ebersole, Executive Director of Pennsylvania's Senate Agriculture and Rural Affairs Committee. For that reason, horse owners are expected to participate in the National Animal Identification System (NAIS) currently rolling out across America. Ebersole says that the designation of "livestock" versus "companion" animal is important for many reasons beyond NAIS. As livestock, "horses can participate in and be part of all sorts of programs, including Farmland Preservation, Clean and Green, Animal Health and Diagnostic programs, etc." Ebersole says.
The American Horse Council takes a broader view, noting that there are diseases that affect both horses and other livestock. "A system that does not include horses would not be as effective and may not satisfy the goals of agriculture and the livestock community. In addition, there are diseases that horses can spread to humans and raise bio-terrorism concerns."
The American Horse Council further points out that there are numerous advantages to the equine industry as long as horses are considered livestock. "The horse industry has worked hard at the federal, state and local level to remain within the
'livestock' category. There are advantages to being classified as livestock with respect to agricultural classifications and assistance, federal funds for research on equine diseases, favorable tax provisions, animal welfare laws and regulations, zoning restrictions and similar requirements." A NAIS could also eliminate embargoes of an entire state's horse population when disease breaks out, expedite recovery of horses in a natural disaster or theft, and facilitate import and export.
The goal of NAIS is to facilitate rapid containment of disease outbreaks among livestock. To do that, a comprehensive animal identification program is being developed, which would essentially link livestock to specific farms, and monitor (although not in real time) livestock movements outside the farms where they are registered.
The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) has not issued any guidelines yet about how horse identification would work. In fact, there is literally a blank space in the part of the USDA plan allocated to horses. Despite that, individual state legislatures, including Pennsylvania's, have begun working through the process of establishing animal identification protocols. In Pennsylvania, SB 865 would make premises registration mandatory. The bill directs the Department of Agriculture to assign unique identification codes to premises where cattle, bison, swine, goats, horses, chickens and other livestock are housed. Whereas the USDA program calls for voluntary compliance, Pennsylvania's plan would make compliance mandatory. While the USDA's plan calls for discrete identification numbers for each animal, SB 865 would only make premises registration mandatory. It does not address tagging individual animals or tracking them. So it's difficult to match SB 865 to USDA objectives for tracing disease outbreaks to individual herds.
On June 15, 2006 Pennsylvania's Secretary of Agriculture, Dennis C. Wolff, sent letters to the state's livestock and poultry producers. In the letter he encouraged farms to register with the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture (PDA), but did not mention SB 865, which would make such registration mandatory. At the same time he referred to NAIS and pointed out that "Although I do not necessarily endorse all aspects of the NAIS, there is a component that I recognize as very important to animal health issues in the Commonwealth: identifying those premises that have livestock, poultry, or other animal agriculture."
The animal identification program is controversial among horse owners for several reasons. First, horse owners note that horses are not part of the food chain in America. Second, horses live longer than most livestock. They move from farm to farm. Third, horses routinely commingle with horses from other farms, states and countries at fairs, shows, competitions, and other venues. Although there are hardly any definitive guidelines regarding the movement of horses, it appears that routine trail and off the farm rides will not be considered reportable incidents.
These concerns—coupled with mixed signals from the USDA regarding compliance, cost, accountability, etc.—have contributed to the confusion, frustration and anger that are fueling anti-NAIS sentiment.
Because of the complexity of developing a common denominator that would satisfy the disparate needs of vastly different species of livestock and the stakeholders who breed and own the animals, there are working groups for each species, struggling with the details of how to make NAIS work for everything from chickens to horses. An Equine Species Working Group (ESWG) was formed in an effort to proactively shape the form of NAIS if it becomes mandatory for horses. The ESWG includes representatives from every part of the equine industry, from thoroughbred racing, to horse councils, to veterinarians, to breed organizations, to backyard horse owners.
The USDA has not yet developed a definitive proposal for horses, but it is expected that horses will be part of the program. Members of the ESWG believe it's in the best interests of the equine industry and horse owners for stakeholders to be involved in the discussions. The ESWG issued a report in April, 2006, which said "The horse industry determined that it was better to involve itself in crafting the proposed system, rather than simply allowing it to be imposed on the industry. Simply stated, the ESWG was formed to evaluate the NAIS and the potential benefits and costs of the system to the equine industry in order to make reasonable and informed recommendations to USDA regarding how the equine industry might be included in the program should it become mandatory. The ESWG is committed to make recommendations for a system that recognizes the uniqueness of the equine industry and, to the extent possible, minimally affects current practices and procedures."
Among the ESWG's expectations are these:
The ESWG believes that it's critical for individuals and organizations to voice their concerns and their ideas by directly contacting the USDA and state agencies with their input. At the same time, the group's members want horse owners to see the potential benefits of a national identification system for horses. For instance, they say that such a system would support efforts to ensure the health of equines by making it possible to identify and isolate animals that have been exposed to a contagious disease. In addition, a national identification system might "expedite recovery and identification of horses in case of loss due to natural disaster, theft or accident."
Some critics question the government's ability to enforce a mandatory NAIS. Currently Pennsylvania law requires all horses entering the state to have proof of current negative Coggins. While this law is routinely and aggressively enforced at major horse shows and racetracks, it would take hundreds of thousands of additional police hours to patrol the state's borders and enforce the law. Economics make the law unenforceable. The size of an agency to enforce the NAIS and the cost of enforcement are so far unaddressed.
NAIS is a complex issue that needs candid debate and measured feedback from the people most affected by it. Now is the time that the USDA, Pennsylvania's Agriculture Department and State Senators and Representatives need to hear about concerns, ideas and issues that are associated with the equine industry.
For more information, visit www.usda.gov/nais or the ESWG website, which can be accessed from www.horsecouncil.org, where a downloadable booklet is available. For information on Pennsylvania's efforts, visit http://www.agriculture.state.pa.us, click on Pennsylvania Premises Registration under "What's New."