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Animal ID Fights Agroterrorism

Animals bred for consumption in the United States are often moved within or accross state borders with relative ease and with little paper trail. That lack of documentation creates vulnerability, because if an animal becomes infected, the ability to quickly ascertain its origins could mean the difference between an isolated case and a deadly pandemic.

One important step toward implementation of a tracking system would be an animal identification program. But a mandatory federal program is opposed by many farmers and ranchers who worry about the cost and fear that “this data in the hands of government agencies might well be used for reasons beyond animal disease surveillance,” says Jim Akers, executive director of the Southeast Livestock Network.

A volunteer market-driven system may be the answer, says Akers. “In the industry we can collect data and establish ownership of that data and make sure that it’s used for its intended purpose,” he says.

The National Cattlemen’s Beef Association (NCBA), one of the largest cattle associations in the world, is currently working with industry partners to develop a national database that is privately controlled. The NCBA-initiated system will only contain information related to animal health, says Kim Essex, vice president of NCBA.

Not every group thinks a privately controlled database is a good idea. The National Farmers Union is concerned that a private database will cause American livestock producers to foot the bill for the benefit of processors and retailers. Instead, the group advocates for a government-run database.

It now looks like the government would be willing to allow a private-entity database, similar to the NCBA database, to serve as the information repository for a national ID program.

Agricultural Secretary Mike Johanns announced recently that the government is amenable to having a public/private partnership that would enable the private sector to maintain the database for the National Animal Identification System (NAIS) that is currently being set up by Veterinary Services, a part of the Department of Agriculture.

NAIS should be able to identify and trace all animals and premises that have had contact with a foreign or domestic animal disease within 48 hours after discovery.

The NAIS program will be instituted in three phases. The first phase involves the registration of any premises on which animals are handled. This is now voluntary, but once NAIS is mandatory in 2009, proprietors will have to register all premises with state or tribal officials. The data will then be reported to NAIS.

After their premises have been registered, producers will be able to obtain an identification tag, which will be tied to a unique animal identification number (AIN). The AIN, which will be in the datbase, will remain with the animal until slaughter and will be used to determine its origin or where it was first tagged.

The type of tags will most likely vary from species to species, but the data on the tag will be consistent, focusing on dates of sale and locations to which the animal has been taken. Cost of the devices will be shared between federal and state governments and the producers.