A Chat With USDA's Bruce Knight About National ID

BEEF Cow-Calf Weekly chatted this week with with Bruce Knight, USDA undersecretary for marketing, on National Animal Identification System (NAIS) issues. Here's a bit of the give and take.

BEEF Cow-Calf Weekly chatted this week with with Bruce Knight, USDA undersecretary for marketing, on National Animal Identification System (NAIS) issues. Here's a bit of the give and take.

BEEF Cow-Calf Weekly -- As of Oct. 29, signups of premises under NAIS were at 422,852, or about 30% of premises in the U.S. But aside from premises registration, what other progress has been made with NAIS?
Bruce Knight: I'm in the clearance process for the business plan and I expect a public release in early to mid December. It will get down to the core material work that has to be done to make a successful animal ID system work.

One of the things we're really going to focus on is how to get at and achieve 48-hour traceability by building on the strength of what's worked so well in the past. So it's building on the existing efforts with brucellosis eradication, bovine tuberculosis (TB) programs, Johne's, pseudorabies -- to really use our existing disease programs as a platform to be able to achieve 48-hour traceability in the event of a disease outbreak.

We're setting up the ability for these programs to migrate into radio-frequency ID (RFID). USDA just purchased about 1.5 million RFID tags for use in the disease programs. We'll start with TB first. So that now as we start doing TB trace-outs and testing, we will use an RFID tag in cows we test. That helps greatly on manpower, labor and accuracy, because when you have to come back and test a second time, everything is already using RFID.

The government will absorb these costs, just as it covers those costs today with TB and TB tracebacks.

We'll start with TB and I hope to be able to pilot this program in a similar way with brucellosis, but we're working on the details of how to move forward on that with some of the bangs vaccinations efforts in the same way.

The lesson I strongly heard from the countryside is that if animal ID is going to work and work well, it needs to work for USDA's own disease programs and that's what we're really embracing and moving forward with. One of the key things is I have a half-dozen databases around the country for each of the disease programs, and what we're doing is the investment work to make sure they can communicate with each other so that you can quickly mine that data in the event of needing to do traceback.

BEEF Cow-Calf Weekly --What's the status of the NAIS business plan?
Bruce Knight: It's really very close to release. A few draft versions of the plan were handed out at the Animal Health Association meeting in late October. I'm waiting on some of those veterinarians to provide feedback. But I'm hoping that by the first week or two of December to be able to have a public release of that plan.

We'll also put it up on the NAIS Web site and seek comments on it. But I really want something that's out there that gives a 3-5 year vision of where we're going as well as what we've already achieved with animal ID.

I think I'll have some good, solid commonsense news for folks. We're basically able to achieve 48-hour traceability on poultry today. We can easily achieve 48-hour traceability by 2009 on pork. We can probably achieve it in sheep by building on the scrapie-surveillance program. And then the real work begins with what we have to do with cattle, both dairy and beef.

BEEF Cow-Calf Weekly -- What does Mike Johanns' exit as USDA Secretary mean for NAIS?
Bruce Knight: The high priority of work on animal ID hasn't changed, largely because this is about preparedness in the event of catastrophic disease. And so it's very removed from the politics of who is sitting directly in the USDA Secretary's chair.

BEEF Cow-Calf Weekly -- R-CALF USA has requested a moratorium on any further premise registration efforts, and that NAIS, or any other similar systems under any other name, be de-funded at once. What's the mood of support in Congress for NAIS? What level of federal support are we looking at for next year?
Bruce Knight: It's sad when an organization that purports to speak for cattlemen and actually has a veterinarian as its president would take a position against a disease-control and eradication effort. I'm greatly saddened and disappointed by that turn.

As far as prospects in Congress, I will be taking the business plan up to the appropriators and sharing it with them. They want to know what's been the investment for the last several years, and what is the direction of the program? I think this transparency in this business plan will respond to their needs and concerns.

The House ag appropriations committee last spring proposed no additional funding for this next fiscal year for animal ID. The Senate proposed about $19 million in funding. The two groups haven't yet worked their differences out in conference. They had wanted to see the business plan and I'll have it delivered to them well before they are in conference, so I'm very optimistic about continued support for animal ID.

BEEF Cow-Calf Weekly -- Where individual animal ID is concerned, how big of a motivator for those opposed is the concern about hidden income currently kept beyond the scrutiny of the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) via cash or barter transactions?
Bruce Knight: I've heard that speculation, but I can't speak to how valid it is. It would certainly be disappointing if we ultimately were to find that our nation's animal health is being threatened by folks trying to avoid taxes.

The thing I do know is that with the safeguards we have built into the confidentiality in animal ID, I can provide assurances to folks that we have never provided the information from ID to another federal agency. Neither the Environmental Protection Agency or the IRS can access this ID information. This is truly a database about animal health and being able to notify farmers and ranchers in the event of a catastrophic disease outbreak.

If people want to see the merits of having good preparation and planning as it pertains to animal health, take a look at the United Kingdom right now. What could have been a devastating outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease this fall appears at this stage to be well contained.

BEEF Cow-Calf Weekly --With the benefit of hindsight, is there a strategy that perhaps USDA could have followed to move the NAIS process along more effectively? Or would the effect have been the same regardless of the approach?
Bruce Knight: I think everyone would acknowledge that if we had started with the basics of the kind of work we're doing now, with building upon the strength and experience of the existing disease programs; if we'd really embraced that from the very beginning and used that as the first step, that we might have been able to avoid some of the pitfalls that have been experienced.

But hindsight is always easier.

BEEF Cow-Calf Weekly -- Do you think perhaps USDA trying to bite off more than it could chew was an issue with NAIS? Should USDA have started with a more species-specific strategy than one that was across the board?
Bruce Knight: There's a lot of merit to having the very comprehensive system that we've got. When you look around the globe, most of the other countries just have one or two species. They didn't tackle as wide a range as we have but I think that longterm when this is up and running, we're going to have a system that will be the envy of folks around the globe.

BEEF Cow-Calf Weekly -- What about the horse side of NAIS?
Bruce Knight: In the business plan, we're going to draw a distinction between competition horses and pleasure horses. I've clearly heard concern from folks with just a couple of pleasure horses that never leave the place wondering why they need to do it. We don't have to put those as high as a priority as horses that are on the racing circuit or the show circuit, or the rodeo circuit. So we see that as the right place to put the emphasis. And given the recent outbreaks on equine herpes, I think the competition-horse sector will be very welcoming to these adjustments under ID plans.