The National Animal Identification System (NAIS) and the cost of its implementation go hand in hand. That's particularly true as it relates to the use of electronic or other advanced ID systems to achieve the program's goal of 48-hour traceability when the system is fully operational.
The U.S. Animal Identification Plan's Bovine Working Group two years ago recommended the deployment of low-frequency (LF), radio-frequency identification (RFID) technology based on internationally recognized ISO 11784/11785 standards. LF technology has been manufactured, on an industrial basis, since the mid '90s and is used in multiple animal ID systems worldwide.
For a variety of reasons, USDA subsequently adopted a technology-neutral stance in its plans for NAIS. The agency's motive was to ensure a level playing field for all types of automatic information data-capture (AIDC) technologies. This included biometric (such as DNA or retinal scanning) or electronic (all RFID frequency types) in order to set the stage for healthy competition in the marketplace.
USDA may have gotten more than it bargained for. Since then, USDA has been bombarded by startup companies promising new technologies readily available off the shelf and able to offer improved solutions to existing LF technology at a fraction of the cost. The problem, however, is many of these newer AIDC technologies haven't been scientifically validated for use under a variety of livestock handling and management environments.
Much like the 1890's rush to the Yukon gold strike, a number of companies are trying to hit it big by adapting technologies used in other industries for use in livestock production. While I applaud the innovators of these new technologies for offering up new solutions, livestock producers can ill-afford to become enamored with closed-loop proprietary hardware and software systems with all of the bells and whistles that may not integrate with their current systems or those of their suppliers or customers.
In the same breath, based on the results obtained at the Kansas State University Animal ID Knowledge Laboratory and from field observations, I caution some LF manufacturers who have rushed poor-performing tags and readers into the marketplace without adequate testing beforehand.
Unfortunately, the end-result is confusion and apprehension among producers in regard to any technology that can be successfully implemented into our cattle industry. This will not only cost precious dollars but prolong the move to a workable NAIS program for livestock ID and traceback.
Our industry must have reliable technology. Unless ALL companies understand the challenges of adapting technologies to cattle and livestock premises and working environments, the NAIS may instead provide a trail littered with the bones of companies that over-promised and under-delivered on services and technology.
Simply allowing the marketplace to dictate what will and won't work will be potentially catastrophic for everyone involved. It may also have the unintended consequences of driving up costs, not only in dollars but in time.
Producers must demand that research and development for ALL technologies be fairly and consistently evaluated in transparent testing environments. One solution is for USDA to establish national standards for conformance and performance of technologies for use with NAIS.
The ID industry needs its own version of an Underwriters Laboratories (UL) Mark, the most recognized and trusted symbol of safety in the world. UL tests more than 19,000 types of products, and 20 billion UL Marks appear in the marketplace each year.
With such conformance standards, the U.S. beef industry could relieve producers of the tremendous clutter that exists today in the electronic ID market and move the NAIS effort ahead more efficiently and cost effectively.
Dale Blasi is a Kansas State University Professor and Extension beef specialist and a leading authority on individual electronic cattle ID and traceback.