NAIS: The Lack of Science And An Update On Its Status

by Judith McGeary

This articles was originally published in the November 2006 edition of Acres, USA.


As opposition to the National Animal Identification System (NAIS) has grown, government and industry officials have repeatedly claimed that the program is necessary to address animal disease. But disease, both in livestock and humans, is a reality that we have lived with for millennia. There is a way to get rid of the problem of livestock disease: become vegans, use no animal products, and have no animals for companionship. There is also a way to get rid of the problem of human disease: arrange our society around telecommuting, avoid all social gatherings, and wear gloves and face masks whenever contact with other humans is unavoidable.

Why don’t we do these things? Because they don’t make sense, most people would say. Every action taken imposes some type of cost, whether in terms of money, time, lifestyle, or freedom. In making decisions, we look at the disease risk, the alternative actions we can take, the benefits to be gained, and the costs.

So how did the government make the decision to implement the NAIS? What are the risks it is supposed to address? What benefits will we get? And what are the costs? When faced with a massive government program that will affect millions of people, we’d expect these questions to be answered with epidemiological studies and detailed cost–benefit analyses. But these appear to be missing. And, yet, USDA is pushing ahead with the program.


Where is the scientific evaluation?

NAIS has one, and only one, goal: 48 hour traceback of all animal movements. NAIS does not address prevention of disease. Instead, the USDA continues to propagate the myth that proper nutrition and low-stress livestock management make no difference to the incidence of disease. NAIS does not address diagnosis or detection of sick animals. Instead, the USDA continues to allow thousands of uninspected agricultural shipments across our borders, avoids using field tests for rapid diagnosis of illnesses, and fails to provide the training necessary for most veterinarians to recognize foreign animal diseases.

And NAIS does not address treatment of sick animals. Instead, the USDA’s plan if Foot and Mouth Disease occurs in the U.S. is to draw 10-km kill zones around infected animals and kill every susceptible animal within those zones. Can you imagine the public outcry if the FDA suggested that the best way to reduce the economic losses each year from incidence of flu was to kill those who got sick, to avoid the spread? That is, in essence, the USDA’s answer to animal disease.

Instead of considering all of these possible means for addressing animal disease, USDA is pushing a program focused solely on traceback. With this goal in mind, the government and industry officials have repeatedly stated that they must have “100% participation” for the NAIS to be effective. Every person who owns even one laying hen, Shetland pony, milk cow, or pot-bellied pig must be in the system, just like the companies who own hundreds of thousands of poultry and swine or who operate huge feedlots of cattle.

We all know that not every situation poses the same risks. Scientists studying the spread of human diseases develop mathematical models and perform studies to determine the different levels of risk posed by different situations. In most business situations, the “80/20” rule is followed – 80% of the “problem” will be managed if you address 20% of the cause. So where is it written that 100% registration of farm and animals is needed to address disease control?

There are other epidemiological questions. Why is 48 hours the magic number for traceback? What types of movements are actually relevant? What kind of tracing do we need for air-borne diseases, versus diseases spread by direct contact, versus disease with little to no contagion risk (such as prion diseases)?

Looking for answers, the first logical stop is the USDA. After all, they’re the ones telling everyone that the NAIS will control disease. At the government- and industry-sponsored Animal ID Expo in August, I asked for studies on these issues. My first approach was to Neil Hammerschmidt, the USDA coordinator for the NAIS. Hammerschmidt’s response was that he was in charge of the practical implementation of NAIS and was the wrong person to ask for the scientific underpinning. How reassuring, that the government official in charge of the program does not have a grasp of the science that supposedly supports the design of that very program!

He recommended I speak with Steve Weber in USDA’s Center for Epidemiology and Animal Health. Weber was very courteous, while telling me that he knew of only one specific study (which he was a co-author on) that supported the design of NAIS. He said that the design of the NAIS was based on a variety of studies, along with looking at what other countries have done. He promised to email me the citation for his article, and ask around to see if other people in the USDA knew of other specific studies. As of the date of this article, I have gotten no references or citations from him.

I also tried to get answers from a key industry representative, the co-chair of the Equine Species Working Group, Dr. Beeman. 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 animals dedicate ourselves to animal health every single day. We read avidly about how to keep our animals healthy, and have years of experience. They claim they have scientific bases for their plan for us, yet cannot produce any scientific studies. If they’re going to turn all of American agriculture on its head, and destroy multiple constitutional rights, we deserve a better response than “trust the experts.”


Where is the cost analysis?

I was not the only one asking about whether a cost analysis had been done at the Animal ID Expo. Some officials avoided the question entirely, while others responded that an analysis had not been done because the plans weren’t complete enough. In other words, the 22-page Draft Plan and 34-page Program Standards published in 2005, as the result of three years of intensive work building on two decades of industry planning, are sufficient to justify spending tens of millions of tax dollars, but not enough for a basic cost analysis. Is this how the government ends up spending $20,000 for a hammer?

One industry claim is that RFID tags will be sold for $2.75, and that that will include “lifetime reporting.” This is a very confusing claim, especially when one considers that the total costs for the program in other countries has been reported as ranging anywhere from $37/head to $69/head. A conversation with one of the board members of the U.S. Animal Identification Organization (USAIO) cleared up the confusion. USAIO was created in 2006 by Farm Bureau, National Cattlemens Association, and others, to manage the “industry-led animal movement database.” Apparently, USAIO’s plan is to develop contracts with slaughterhouses and sales barns to fund part of the cost of the databases. So, instead of paying for reports when you file, you will indirectly be paying for them whenever you take an animal for processing or sale. And whatever shortfall is not covered by the levies on the tags and services will presumably be made up in our tax dollars.

By avoiding a cost-benefit analysis, USDA probably hopes to avoid the outcry that would occur if people realized just how much was going to be wasted on a program that has no scientific support.



Where are the government’s plans?

While the government lacks scientific studies on the need for, or benefits of, the NAIS, and has failed to do a cost analysis, it has plenty of one thing: determination to move forward with the program. The NAIS is proceeding at both the federal and state levels.


While some sources reported that there was a freeze in the federal funding for the NAIS, this information was incorrect. The Appropriations bill explicitly authorizes $33 million for the NAIS program. The funds will be released as soon as the USDA provides the Appropriations Committee a “complete and detailed plan” for the NAIS. In other words, a small handful of Congressmen have the authority to give this program the go-ahead. This provision is better than an unconditional grant of the funds, but it is a far cry from withholding all further funding.

More encouraging news can be found in the Talent/Emerson Bill. In September, Senator Talent and Congresswoman Emerson introduced bills in both the House and the Senate to bar the USDA from implementing a mandatory program or from funding a mandatory program. The bills do not address the definition of a voluntary program, which is a significant concern. But they are the first bills introduced in Congress that take an anti-NAIS position, signaling that the anti-NAIS opposition is beginning to gain ground. Activists are also looking towards the 2007 Farm Bill as a potential opening to bring anti-NAIS legislation before Congress.

And although it is not directly related to the NAIS, the issue of hay registration by the FDA has become a hot topic. The Bioterrorism Act of 2002 required that “domestic and foreign facilities that manufacture, process, pack, or hold food for human or animal consumption” in the United States must register with FDA by the end of 2006. The statute exempted both “farms” and “private residences.” Yet some people within the FDA are now stating that farms must register unless they consume everything they grow on the farm; in other words, if you sell hay to your neighbor, you would have to register. We are currently trying to find out what is and is not actually required, and will have the information posted on our website at or when it is available.


Spurred by the federal grant dollars, several states are moving full speed ahead with the NAIS. Wisconsin and Indiana have already adopted mandatory premises registration. But while this is posing hardships on the farmers in those states, what was done can be undone in the next legislative session.

Other states are trying to implement NAIS without admitting that they are doing it. Maryland is requiring registration of all poultry facilities, starting with backyard flocks and moving to commercial flocks later. While the press releases state that this is not related to NAIS, it is obviously part of the same agenda. Massachusetts is using Mass. Gen Laws Sec. 129, which provides for the protection of animal health, as the basis for registering all livestock premises in the state without the landowners’ agreement. The Commissioner of Agriculture has stated that the information is being shared with the Federal government. Michigan has been one of the most aggressive states. Under the auspices of the tuberculosis program, the state has enrolled many farmers in the NAIS database and has mandated that they use electronic identification for their cattle by March 2007.

Other states have taken an intermediate road. For example, the Alabama legislature adopted HB 254, which establishes a voluntary animal identification program “consistent with” NAIS. The Alabama program will become mandatory immediately when NAIS becomes mandatory. Alaska has so far avoided the NAIS issue, but has adopted HB 380, which provides for seizure and destruction of animals by the state to prevent spread of contagious disease.

And other states have seen a public outcry that has stopped NAIS, if only temporarily. While the Texas Animal Health Commission proposed mandatory premises registration, this proposal has lapsed. Several Texas legislators have committed to introducing legislation next session to completely repeal the program or, at the least, limit it to a voluntary program. In Tennessee, Representative Frank Nicely is working on alternative legislation that would limit the program to non-electronic tags. Vermont held hearings on proposed regulations to make premises registration mandatory, but has now put the program on hold. The stated reason was concern over confidentiality under the Freedom of Information Act, but it appears that the real reason was that the statute did not provide enough enforcement authority. The fight is far from over in any of these states, but we have definitely gained ground.



What You Can Do

The government and industry officials have spent over a decade developing their plans for NAIS. The grassroots movement opposing NAIS just started to gain momentum over the last year, and has a long way to go – most US citizens still don’t even know NAIS exists. If we want to stop it, we have to do more!

Writing your state legislators and Congressmen is a great first step. You can multiply your effectiveness by helping to build a bigger grassroots movement. Hand copies of this article or other information about NAIS to your neighbors. Put stacks of flyers at your local feed stores and auction barns. Help to organize a local meeting and bring in a speaker. You can download materials and information at both and

Judith McGeary is an attorney in Austin, Texas, and the Executive Director of the Farm and Ranch Freedom Alliance. She has a B.S. in Biology from Stanford University and a J.D. with high honors from The University of Texas at Austin. She began her legal career by clerking for the U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals. Since then, her practice has focused on environmental law, commercial litigation, and appeals. She and her husband run a small farm with horses, cattle, sheep, and poultry.