Anyone hoping for answers and clarity at last week's ID/InfoExpo -- a de facto national forum for discussing and developing the national ID system -- surely walked away disappointed. Though USDA Secretary Mike Johanns was on the docket and took questions from the crowd, his answers remained vague and non-committal.
For example, Johanns repeatedly dodged questions about whether USDA's intent was to make and maintain NAIS as a voluntary or mandatory program. He stressed it's a voluntary program today and believes a voluntary program is preferable. Yet USDA's NAIS Implementation Plan (animalid.aphis.usda.gov/nais) issued in April states in black and white that adopting mandatory regulations is a contingency plan for producer participation.
Johanns also demurs from questions aimed at assessing what level of voluntary participation is required for effective animal-health trace-back.
Similarly, Johanns will not provide an answer about the system's cost, other than alluding to the $83 million USDA has already poured into it. One reason may be no such estimate exists, despite repeated requests from the industry for a cost-benefit analysis.
In a separate one-on-one interview, Chief Veterinary Officer, John Clifford, was more specific, implying producers will be responsible for purchasing and applying NAIS tags. He pointed out no state is currently charging producers to register their premises with NAIS, which is a prerequisite to obtaining official NAIS tags.
On the issue of money, there was no public mention of the General Accounting Office's current investigation of NAIS at the behest of a U.S. Senator. Nor was any mention made of the fact there remains some question about whether the $33 million in federal dollars earmarked for NAIS next year will be frozen until specific answers are provided to Congress, as was stipulated in one of the appropriations bills awaiting conferencing.
Other key questions still unanswered:
Who guarantees confidentiality? For obvious reasons, producers are unlikely to provide any NAIS data if they believe it could be accessed by anyone other than state and federal animal-health officials. Johanns said, "I agree with livestock producers who believe information about your livestock is your business, period."
Again, in a separate interview, Clifford was more specific. He explains USDA has protected producer info from prying eyes and the Freedom of Information Act via the Privacy Act. However, state animal-health officials and others continue to emphasize the need for legislation at both levels aimed at protecting NAIS data specifically.
What about working group recommendations? Each livestock species devised its own working group to make NAIS recommendations to the Secretary of Ag. Those from the Cattle Industry Working Group were submitted months ago and have yet to receive approval or denial from USDA. That means anything beyond premises registration remains speculation. In turn, that means few producers are likely to begin tagging cattle with NAIS tags until species-specific recommendations are adopted.
Is it all for all and one for all? Cattle and swine are more advanced in NAIS development than any of the others. Some other species are just getting started, while others continue to dig their feet in against elements of the program. It's difficult to imagine cattle producers embracing a program like NAIS if other species are allowed to sit on the sidelines.
Do you know what you're talking about? The cooperative effort between the livestock industry and the state and federal animal-health officials charged with protecting those industries emphasized the need for a national system for animal health purposes. Yet Johanns continues to harp on his belief the market will drive NAIS adoption, that there are already economic incentives in the domestic and international markets to provide ID.
It's true that in isolated circumstances a few producers are able to command a higher price for source verification or other process verification tied to ID. Even if the economic incentives were high and widespread, NAIS isn't about those things. It's about the nation's ability to better protect its livestock industry, period.
Perhaps the most positive outcome of the meeting was a public display of the livestock industry's ongoing resolve to develop and implement a national animal ID system for the purpose of protecting the nation's livestock. In an informal survey of the 600 meeting participants, 78% believe such a system is so imperative to protecting the livestock industry that it should be made mandatory.