NAIS: The Basics

As far back as the 1980s, industry groups and technology companies were developing plans for an electronic national animal identification system that was to apply to all species. In 2002, an industry trade group called the National Institute for Animal Agriculture, or NIAA, declared the animal identification was a “problem” and sought the government’s involvement.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) is currently in the process of implementing the National Animal Identification System (NAIS) through the States. NAIS is designed to identify all livestock animals and poultry and track their movements. When the program is fully implemented, the USDA claims that the NAIS will be able to identify all premises on which animals and poultry are located, and all animals that have had contact with a disease of concern, within 48 hours of discovery.

The USDA recently described NAIS as “one of the largest systematic changes ever faced by the livestock industry.” Despite the scope of the proposed program, the government has not conducted any scientific studies or epidemiological models to analyze the design or effectiveness of the NAIS, nor has the agency performed a cost-benefit analysis. Rather, the USDA has relied on generalized statements that NAIS is necessary to protect the United States against an outbreak of animal disease and that it will help the export market.

Although the USDA repeatedly states that NAIS is “voluntary” at the federal level, it is encouraging mandatory state programs through grants. The USDA’s stated goal is 100% participation by January 2009. The USDA continues to provide grants to the states, and the state cooperative agreements include meeting performance goals. As a result, several states have adopted, or are proposing to adopt, mandatory laws and regulations. Other states have used coercive methods and data mining to increase participation in so-called voluntary programs.

The NAIS is to be implemented in three stages. Since no truly voluntary program has 100% participation, to reach the USDA’s goal of 48-hour traceback of every animal, each stage would ultimately need to be mandatory:

1. Premises registration: Every person who owns any livestock animal would have to register the premises where the livestock is held within the state. Livestock animals include cattle (beef and dairy), hogs, sheep and goats, chickens and other poultry, horses, bison, deer and elk, alpacas and llamas, and others.

2. Animal identification: There will be two levels of animal identification: individual animal and group or lot identification. Most animals in the program would need to be individually identified with a unique 15-digit number. Animals would either be implanted with a microchip or tagged with a radio frequency device, or otherwise physically identified. The tag will have to bear the entire 15-digit number, with the number easily read. For at least some species, radio-frequency identification devices would be required.

Group or lot identification could only be used where groups of animals are managed together from birth to death and not commingled with other animals. In practice, only large confinement producers of poultry and swine would be able to avail themselves of this exception to the individual tagging rule. If animals do not meet the requirements for group identification, they will have to be individually identified.

3. Animal tracking: Every time a tag is applied, a tag is lost or an animal needs to be re-tagged, an animal is killed or dies, or an animal is missing, the event would have to be reported to the government within 24 hours. “Commingling events” will have to be reported, including private and public sales, regional shows and exhibitions.
The NAIS will remain a problem until Congress and the state legislatures adopt legislation barring the agencies from implementing mandatory or coercive programs.