As critics and proponents continue to clash over the possibility of the National Animal Identification System (NAIS) becoming mandatory, the USDA has set up “listening sessions” in an attempt to hear all sides, allay fears and combat misperceptions about the program.

With the current rancor surrounding NAIS — especially amongst independent producers — that is a tall order. NAIS critics are surely sharpening their teeth in anticipation of the sessions.

(For more on the sessions, see http://animalid.aphis.usda.gov/nais/feedback.shtml.)

“(USDA) secretary Vilsack realizes that while APHIS (Animal Plant Health Inspection Service) has been charged with implementing NAIS, there are still many significant concerns and challenges before we can say we have an effective animal ID system,” says Joelle Schelhaus, APHIS public affairs specialist.

“Much has been done over the years to engage producers in developing a system they could support. But some of the same issues keep coming up: cost, impact on small farmers, privacy, etc.”

Vilsack “wants to engage stakeholders in a participatory process so everyone’s concerns can be heard — especially those who haven’t yet had a chance to make their concerns clear. More importantly, to try to find potential feasible solutions that would make stakeholders comfortable.”

Those unable to make the listening sessions can provide comments on-line at: http://www.regulations.gov/fdmspublic/component/main?main=DocketDetail&d=APHIS-2009-0027.

“We tried to spread (the sessions) out regionally,” says Neil Hammerschmidt, NAIS coordinator. “We’ll continue to augment these with additional, more localized listening sessions and feedback opportunities.”

At the end of April, a cost-benefit analysis of NAIS prepared by Kansas State University was released (see http://animalid.aphis.usda.gov/nais/naislibrary/documents/plans_reports/NAIS_overview_report.pdf). “The intent was to look at what the overall adoption cost would be for NAIS for different species groups,” says Hammerschmidt. “It was primarily done for cattle, sheep, swine, poultry, and the equine industry.”

One of the main things the study found is that disease “traceability is a global must-have,” says Schelhaus. “(Traceability) in some form is becoming a global standard. When looking at the global marketplace, the United States is behind its major competitors and major markets in providing traceability. The study found if the United States does nothing to advance traceability, researchers anticipate it will lose market access.”

If “trace-back time” can be decreased by half “that in itself (will provide) tremendous savings not only to USDA and health officials, but to the industry as a whole,” says Hammerschmidt.

The total cost for implementing NAIS in the cattle sector alone — as described in the study — is $175.9 million annually at a 90 percent participation level. Schelhaus says that equates to less than one-half a percent of the retail value of U.S. beef products.

The annual cost for NAIS adoption in the poultry industry is estimated at “about $9.1 million. The average industry cost isn’t particularly high — they’re all less than a cent per bird.”

With NAIS facing criticism on a variety of fronts — and, in truth, being the focus of an abundance of conspiracy theories — Hammerschmidt spoke with Delta Farm Press on May 1. Among his comments:

Time and money it will take small producers to implement NAIS?

“What will it really take to participate? If we look at premises registration once every two or three years, you’d provide information to the state department of agriculture. That’s five or 10 minutes of one’s time. So that’s minimal and has no cost.

“When looking at the identification process — say for cow/calf producers with (around) 30 head — the cost of the tag is certainly an issue, whether it’s electronic, or visual. That would be $1 or $2 per head.

“As for applying the tag, what we’ve tried to do is make it as easy to work with as possible so the producer can tag the animal whenever it works best for their management system. … By putting the tag on the animal before it’s moved into commerce, they’re done.

“There’s a big sense, a misinterpretation, that every time an animal moves from one pasture to another it must be reported to a tracking database. That’s misinformation. Actually, the system was set up at the producers’ recommendations that as the animal moves to market, the movement records could be reported through data collection with the market. Or, the feedlot or wherever the animal goes to.

“Really, on the cow/calf side, we’ve listened well to the producers by making it as efficient and practical to use, as possible. It would take minimal time on their part, really.”

This is an issue that farmers say is unfair: feedlots or chicken houses being “one unit” versus a small rancher having to register each of his animals.

“What are we trying to achieve? We’re trying to establish records that will give animal health officials an effective way of tracking animals back for disease purposes. If we move a large group of feeder pigs from one location to another and there’s no movement of those individual animals that are commingled with others, there’s no gain to be made from individual ID. It’s when we move one of those pigs out of the lot and, for whatever reason — maybe it’s taken out for breeding purposes — then the animal needs to be identified as it moves to another premises.

“I think a lot of the misunderstanding, again, is that this is tailored for big producers. Well, if I’m a large cow/calf producer and sell my animals in different directions, individual ID is necessary. If I maintain ownership of those animals all the way through the system, group lot identification can apply.

“So, it isn’t really an issue of the operation’s size. It’s really what my management practices are. If I move individual animals one-at-a-time to a market, yeah that animal (must be tagged).”

More on cost…

“What helps us clarify the cost — and this is some of the misinformation that’s been out there — is another KSU study (on using) radio frequency or electronic ID for management purposes, (where) A, B, C, and D would need to be bought: hand-held readers, etc. That was figured into the cost.

“But if I’m a smaller producer and can’t gain through the use or integration of electronic ID for my management purposes, I won’t make those investments.”

So those aren’t mandatory?

“No, no. If I put that tag on an animal — say that’s the solution we go with — I don’t even have to read the tag electronically. It’s a matter of having a tag issued to my premises and putting it on. … It’s really the tag itself that gives the animal identity that can be used up the production chain.”

A lot of people are saying, “I’ve got five or six chickens running around my yard. I’ll have to register each one.” Is that true? Or are some of these situations exempted?

“In most of those cases, those animals wouldn’t be part of the focus of NAIS. We’re looking at animals that move in commerce.

“If I have fix, six, a dozen chickens in my backyard for my own purposes — eggs, eating the chickens — they aren’t moved into commerce so aren’t applicable for NAIS. They aren’t moving off the premises and comingled with others.

“Bottom line: no, those animals don’t need to be identified whether a chicken or a calf I’ve raised for my own consumption and processed at a local slaughtering plant.”

What about privacy and having premises given a number? That has led to conspiracy theories…

“The premises number is nothing more than a location identifier. It’s unique for our purposes so we know where livestock is to give first responders information they need. It also enables animal health officials to make contact with producers when there’s a disease event that concerns a certain locality.

“The issue you’re referring to about property rights and such, it should be noted that participation in premises registration of NAIS is not a contractual obligation. Nor does it restrict or effect property ownership or rights in any way.”

What about the use of the words “food safety” versus “disease tracking.” A lot of the criticism of NAIS says … the latest incidents with food safety are at the processing level, not at the farm. Can you talk about the distinction there?

“NAIS is an animal disease program. It enhances our ability to respond timely in the event of a disease outbreak. We’re looking at the point of processing — so if we detect through our surveillance programs TB lesions, or through blood sampling, other disease of concern, we have the identity of the animal to trace it back in the pre-harvest production chain.

“NAIS doesn’t track the food product forward from the slaughter plant.

“Again, I believe part of the confusion is the sense that the problems are at the slaughter plant. Some of our disease surveillance programs are conducted at the slaughter plant because we can visually inspect a carcass for TB lesions. If we find TB lesions in a carcass, the individual ID helps us know where the animal came from.”

I also want to touch on the idea that (NAIS) is being pushed by big agribusiness to move the small producers out of the way…

“NAIS is being put in place for specific traceability purposes for animal diseases. All producers in animal agriculture in this for business benefit.

“There are concerns that this only applies to big producers, big corporations that export product. We think it certainly helps support traceability and maintain consumer confidence for both domestic and international markets.

“Whether I’m a large producer with thousands of animals or a medium-sized producer with 50 head — a big part of my income — this is to safeguard the health of animals and maintain economic viability for all producers.”

Have there been any incidents where you’ve needed to track something in the voluntary program? (Something) where the program has been a benefit?

“There have been different opportunities already with premises registration. (During) the Colorado blizzard — and a lot of people wouldn’t think that’s an animal health issue, but when there are starving animals it is an animal health issue — the state department of agriculture used the premises information as a source to know what producers were in the blizzard area. They made contact with them to see if they needed assistance with hay for their livestock. Producers were appreciative (of that).”

For more on NAIS, see http://deltafarmpress.com/searchresults/?ord=d&terms=NAIS.

e-mail: dbennett@farmpress.com