Where livestock roam

Agriculture Department begins work on national animal ID system

Agriculture Department officials have selected a premises registration system for recording the location of all livestock in the United States, taking the first step toward creating a National Animal Identification System (NAIS). But whether livestock owners will voluntarily use the system has emerged as an early controversy.

Many lawmakers worry that too few people would participate in a voluntary system, and that it would be nearly impossible to quickly trace outbreaks of diseases such as bovine spongiform encephalopathy, better known as mad cow disease, or foot-and-mouth disease, before they spread.

As a basis for the national ID system, USDA officials chose an existing premises registration system that the Wisconsin Livestock Identification Consortium created to meet a state livestock registration requirement. Among the system's advantages is that it is rooted in standards described in the U.S. Animal Identification Plan. Industry representatives and government officials developed the plan, which the USDA adopted in 2003.

Consortium members created the state system to comply with the Wisconsin Premises Registration Act, which requires people who keep livestock in the state to register the animals' locations by November 2005.

USDA officials said the standards won the day for Wisconsin. "Their standards and what they've developed would work best at the national level," said Amy Spillman, public affairs specialist at the USDA's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS), the lead agency in developing data standards for NAIS.

Livestock producers and state animal health authorities in Wisconsin can enter premises information into the Web-based resistration system's database.

Officials in other states have applied to the USDA for money to set up their own premises systems based on the consortium's model. Department officials expect to award grants totaling $11.64 million to states to set up registration systems and, in some cases, test animal tracking technologies, Spillman said.

State and tribal officials have the option of using a premises registration system other than the one based on the Wisconsin model, as long as it complies with national data standards that the USDA has adopted. Agency officials said they expect to complete their evaluations of alternative systems within the next few weeks.

Under the department's current policy, participation in the registration system and the future development of the animal tracking identification system is voluntary. But opinions are deeply divided on the policy.

Some USDA officials defended making the system mandatory and stressed that they want to ensure that the system works efficiently. "We want to test-drive the system and see where the problems are and address those problems before we make it mandatory," Spillman said.

Other department officials said they hesitate to require participation, at least initially. "A voluntary system is necessary in this country to make sure the foundation is sound," said John Clifford, the USDA's deputy administrator of the veterinary services program at APHIS. He spoke before the House Agriculture Committee's Livestock and Horticulture Subcommittee at a recent hearing on NAIS.

Forcing livestock producers to participate in a program without an established infrastructure is not fair or reasonable, Clifford said.

***

A REGISTRY OF LIVESTOCK LOCATIONS

A premises registration system is the first of three phases in the Agriculture Department's plan for creating the National Animal Identification System. The registration process includes the following safeguards:

Each state's agriculture department will be responsible for administering and maintaining premises identification information.

Each state's agriculture department will obtain a unique national premises identification number.

Each state will be required to send only the premises data that animal or public health investigators would need in a national database to trace movements of diseased animals.

Only state and federal health officials will have access to the premises and animal ID information.

Source: U.S. Animal Identification Plan

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