National Animal Identification System and Horses

The Latest from the Equine Species Working Group

 

This article was originally published in the October 2006 issue of the Horse Gazette.

by Judith McGeary

The National Institute for Animal Agriculture hosted its annual Animal ID Expo in Kansas City on August 22-24. This provided a wonderful opportunity hear what the government officials and industry representatives had to say about the National Animal Identification System, or NAIS.

Among the industry representatives were members of the Equine Species Working Group (ESWG). The ESWG members were appointed by the American Horse Council in 2003. At some point, the U.S. Department of Agriculture “recognized” the ESWG as the official working group for the horse industry. This recognition was granted despite the lack of any government guidelines as to the formation, composition, or functioning of the working group. The ESWG is the entity that supposedly represents the interests of horse owners to the USDA in the development of NAIS.

 

 

Some of the people on the ESWG

 

The ESWG is chaired by Dan Fick of the Jockey Club, and Dr. Marvin Beeman and Amy Mann of the American Horse Council. (www.equinespeciesworkinggroup.com) I spoke with both Dr. Beeman and Ms. Mann at the recent ID Expo.

The interview with Dr. Beeman revealed the attitudes of the ESWG toward regular horse owners. He repeatedly stated that he did not understand how people could say that they hadn’t had a voice in the process, because the major horse organizations were involved. Dr. Beeman apparently was not concerned that these organizations didn’t include their individual horse-owning members in the process. I told him my first-hand experience as a member of the American Quarter Horse Association, which did not fully inform its members of what NAIS was and certainly never asked our opinions about the program. Yet my real-life experience made no impression on Dr. Beeman. Rather, he again insisted that everyone had had a voice.

I asked Dr. Beeman about the scientific support for the design of NAIS: the claim that they needed to have every single premises registered for effective disease control, the reason behind the 48-hour goal, etc. He responded that he knew there were studies, but could not give me any specifics on the authors, substance, or anything else. He seemed angry that I would even ask for such things, stating that average animal owners should not put themselves “on par” with those who have “dedicated themselves to animal health.” Apparently, he has missed the fact that those of us who own horses dedicate ourselves to animal health every single day as we take care of our horses. His attitude is that we simply need to trust those in charge, whether vets or the government.

The interview with Ms. Mann was equally interesting. I asked her about the make-up of the ESWG. In describing the members, she volunteered the statement that there were no vendors on the ESWG. So I asked about the fact that Global Vet Link was listed under the name of one of the ESWG members. To quote from one of Global Vet Link’s press releases, it is “an Internet-based business designed to allow animal health authorities to track and regulate animal movement nationally.” Global Vet Link has a clear financial interest in whatever recommendations the ESWG makes regarding NAIS, so having a representatives sit on the working group poses an obvious conflict of interest. Ms. Mann responded that the group had wanted Amelita Facchiano on the ESWG as an individual, and Global Vet Link was simply a convenient contact and one of Ms. Facchiano’s consulting clients. She re-iterated that while the NIAA’s Equine ID Subcommittee had vendors as members, the ESWG did not.

Yet the ESWG repeatedly referenced Ms. Facchiano not as an individual, but as connected with Global Vet Link. And while Ms. Facchiano is listed as being with the Centers for Epidemiology and Health on the NIAA website, the USDA website lists her as being with Global Vet Link. (See http://user.globalvetlink.com/download/eHealth_Certificate_Announcement.pdf) Similarly, at a meeting with our own Texas Animal Health Commission, Ms. Facchiano is again listed as being with Global Vet Link  And press releases from 2003 and 2004 list her as being Global Vet Link’s Director of Sales and Marketing. That sounds like a lot more than simply being a convenient contact, doesn’t it? Her precise role may be too tangled to really understand. What’s clear, though, is that Ms. Facchiano’s ties to the technology community run deep. But the idea that personal financial gain may skew an ESWG member’s decisions seems to be of no concern to the people making the rules.

 

ESWG’s history

 

So what has the ESWG actually done? In December 2004, the ESWG submitted recommendations to the USDA regarding the application of NAIS to horses. (www.thehorse.com/articles/10116/equine-working-group-provides-views-to-usda). It is important to realize that these 2004 recommendations came after extensive work by the ESWG. As the recommendations themselves state: “The ESWG has been working its way through the issues raised by the NAIS for some time.” The ESWG stated that, “Horses are livestock, and should be held to the same standards as other livestock species.” (Recommendation #3).

Consistent with their view that horses should be treated as other livestock, the ESWG endorsed the idea of premises registration and individual identification of horses. The very first recommendation states: “Any horses that are transported interstate, or commingled with other horses or livestock intrastate must be identified with an official form of identification.”

The ESWG also endorsed the tracking of horses. “When horses are transported interstate, intrastate when commingled with other horses or livestock, or to premises or events where a Certificate of Veterinary Inspection (CVI) or other equine health papers such as Coggins are required, the movement must be reported to the appropriate USDA NAIS database(s).” (Recommendation #10)

In 2005, the ESWG added a new level of specificity to its recommendations. For individual identification, the ESWG now recommends a specific technology, namely ISO compatible RFID chips, 11784/85.  This is not the type of microchip that has been generally used in horses in the United States for private purposes, and it emits on a different frequency, 134.2 kHz, rather than 125 KHz. Thus, as even the ESWG admits, most of the scanners and microchip readers in the U.S. today will not read or even detect these ISO chips. Every facility, and horse owner, will have to buy new scanners in order to comply with the ESWG-recommended technology. Further, the ISO 11784/85 microchips are designed to be reprogrammable, so that someone can steal your horse and change its identity by simply reprogramming the chip.

 

Recent developments

 

In recommendations that were released in August 2006, the ESWG has apparently responded to the public outcry and recommended that equine movements not be reported. While this is a good development, it’s too early to celebrate.

First, the USDA and the state agencies are not bound by the recommendations. The USDA has never formally withdrawn the 2005 published documents – the documents have been taken off the website so that the public no longer has easy access to them, but that has no legal significance. These earlier government documents would require horse owners to report movements.

Second, the ESWG is still buying in to the NAIS program overall, after an “initial voluntary period.” Horse owners will not be exempt from Stage 1 of NAIS, premises registration. So if you own a horse, you would still have to register your home with the government. Horse owners will not be exempt from Stage 2 of NAIS, animal identification. In fact, the ESWG continues to recommend that horse owners be required to microchip their horses with the ISO 11784/85 microchip.

The first two stages of NAIS, premises registration and individual animal identification, have not been shown to benefit horse owners or, indeed, owners of any livestock animals. Why should owning an animal be an event that must be reported to the government and place your property in a database? And why should people not be allowed to choose lower-cost means of identifying their animals that are not subject to the technological problems of electronic identification and, in particular, the ISO 11784/85 microchips? Again, no one has produced scientific studies supporting the claims that these steps will improve animal health, nor has the USDA or EWG done an analysis of the costs. So the ESWG is recommending that horse owners be subject to intrusive, expensive measures without any proven health benefits.

Further, by endorsing the inclusion of horses in the first two stages of NAIS, the likely outcome is that horse movements will ultimately be tracked. The ESWG has not stated that tracking is unnecessary, merely that current forms of tracking for horses should be used. But once other animals are required to report every movement, how long will it be until the government says that the existing tracking of horses is insufficient and they have to be like other livestock? The slippery slope is too slippery.

Indeed, at the Animal ID Expo. Ms. Mann stated that the latest recommendations are not consistent with NAIS! She also stated that the states could impose additional requirements, simply by increasing the number of places where health certificates or other documents are required. Interestingly, the Cattle Working Group specifically listed exhibitions and rodeos as being reportable events for cattle. Do you really believe that cattle owners will have to report every rodeo, but that horse owners will avoid this burdensome and expensive requirement?

These concerns are warranted by the ESWG’s history. For years, the ESWG stood by its recommendations that required reporting of every show, trail ride, trip to the vet or breeding facility, or essentially any other movement of a horse off one’s property. Now that they have chosen to change their position, there is no guarantee that they will not simply flip back to their original plan as soon as the public outcry has subsided.

When I asked about the reason for the change in the recommendations, Ms. Mann responded that the ESWG had realized what a negative effect reporting would have on the equine industry. It took them 2 years to realize that horse owners might object to having to report every show, vet visit, and trail ride? Are they that out of touch with the realities of owning horses, or is something else going on?

I don’t agree with Dr. Beeman’s contention that we should just trust the “experts” – the government and industry representatives — to know what’s best. Like every horse owner, I take responsibility for my horse’s health and welfare every single day. The government doesn’t feed my horses, clean their stalls, or exercise them. And they certainly don’t pay the bills for farrier and vet care! Horse owners do not need NAIS to make sure their animals are healthy and to act responsibly if they get sick. All NAIS will do is create additional financial burdens, take time away from things that actually make a difference to animal health, and create a massive government intrusion into our lives.

If you don’t want the USDA to require every horse owner to register their premises, microchip their horse, and report their movements, than you need to make sure that you do have a voice! You can take action by asking your county to adopt a resolution opposing NAIS, writing your state and federal legislators, and supporting the organizations that are fighting this bureaucratic mess.