Few things elicit ire from the horse community like the National Animal Identification System (NAIS). There are quite a few e-mails on the topic being tossed about in equine forums. Many are intemperate screeds which use inflammatory language and disinformation to scare horse owners.
This is a short brief to hopefully separate a few facts from fiction.
According to the United States Department of Agriculture: “The National Animal Identification System (NAIS) is a modern, streamlined information system that helps producers and animal health officials respond quickly and effectively to animal disease events in the United States.”
NAIS applies to cattle, goats, poultry, cervids (deer and elk), swine, equines, sheep and camelids. It comprises three levels of participation: premises registration, animal identification and animal tracking. Nationally, NAIS is completely voluntary, and as of 4-5-09, 510,750 premises were registered.
In Virginia, NAIS is also voluntary, and 9,355 out of an estimated 37,673 premises have been registered.
The USDA specifically states that every animal movement does not need to be recorded, and lists exceptions to equine activities like local trail rides, small local parades and fairs.
Many of the circulating e-mails are interspersed with facts, but use hyperbole and rumor to justify their anti-NAIS position. And when e-mail writers start bellowing that a 10-year-old wielding Google Earth can accomplish what the USDA hopes to accomplish with premises identification, you know you’re reading an emotional diatribe, not a rational argument. Just because someone has professional designation (DVM, MD, etc.) doesn’t mean they’re unbiased or gifted in logic.
Some of the anti-NAIS hysteria is focused on U.S. obligations to the World Trade Organization. Agricultural trade agreements with the WTO include the Office International des Epizooties (OIE) which promulgates the Codex Alimentarius (food law). Also mentioned in the foaming e-mails are Sanitary and Phytosanitary (SPS) and Technical Barriers to Trade (TBT) agreements.
I’m not an international trade lawyer so I won’t try to tell you what this all means or how it will affect Virginia horse owners. And you should be wary of anyone who does. Bashing the WTO is counter-productive. If you’ve ever shopped at Walmart or produced something that was sold overseas (including food), you’ve benefited from U.S./WTO treaties. Demonizing the WTO solves nothing.
Identifying livestock and where they come from is a crucial, scientifically sound means to stopping the spread of potentially devastating diseases. Bovine Spongiform Encephalophy (BSE or Mad Cow Disease) has cost Great Britain billions of pounds, thousands of jobs and resulted in the destruction of tens of thousands of cattle.
If a BSE-infected cow was discovered in the U.S. and all its movements and contacts could not be traced, we could see the destruction of hundreds of thousands of cattle and a near-collapse of the beef industry.
Identifying individual animals began in the 1800s when ranchers branded cattle to claim ownership and deter theft. It was expanded greatly in the early 1900s to help eradicate Bovine Tuberculosis. It’s been evolving ever since and is not a plot by foreign powers to strip you of your God-given freedoms.
How does all this relate to horses? It’s true that horses are different than cows, sheep and pigs in that they are not a food source in this country. But, horses do carry diseases that can infect other species, even humans. Horses are also a big industry in many parts of the country, and horses travel far, far more than other forms of livestock.
The Equine Species Working Group (ESWG) was formed to evaluate the NAIS and its costs and benefits to the equine industry. It comprises equine professionals and organizations whose mission is to make reasonable, informed recommendations to the USDA on how the equine industry might be included in the NAIS program. They have been designated by the USDA as the official equine group to develop recommendations on how the equine industry will integrate into NAIS.
The ESWG is convinced that simply opposing all equine requirements in NAIS will inevitably result in regulations that will be unduly burdensome to horse owners. Therefore, ESWG hopes to create a national ID plan that will work within the parameters of NAIS, yet be as friendly to the horse industry as possible. Currently, the ESWG has NOT endorsed NAIS.
According to their booklet titled NAIS and Horses, “The goal of the ESWG is not to include all horses and all movements in the NAIS. Indeed the latest recommendations reflect that. Rather it is to ensure that federal and state authorities understand what horse ownership and enjoyment involves, and what it would mean to require the identification of every horse, the reporting of every movement and why the industry would oppose that. Indeed, by participating in crafting the application of the system to the uniqueness of the horse industry, the ESWG believes it is more likely that more horses will be excluded than included.”
While it’s unclear if, and in what form, NAIS will become mandatory, there is one bill before Congress that could make it the law of the land. Representative Rosa DeLauro (D-CT) introduced H.R. 875, the Food Safety Modernization Act of 2009 to the House of Representatives on 2-4-09. Section 210, (a) of the bill instructs the newly created Administrator of Food Safety to, “… establish a national traceability system that enables the Administrator to retrieve the history, use, and location of an article of food through all stages of its production, processing, and distribution.”
Horses aren’t food in the U.S., but currently, NAIS rules don’t make exceptions for horses.
H.R. 875 has 41 co-sponsors, but none from Virginia.
On April 15, 2009, U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack announced that in an effort to comply with President Obama’s call for transparency in government, he will initiate a “listening tour” to hear comments about NAIS from communities throughout the country. Details of the tour have not been published yet, but I will post the schedule as soon as it’s released.
Before forming an opinion on NAIS, do some legitimate research on the issue. Using chain e-mails as a source of information on any subject is not a good idea. While there are hundreds of places online to get information on NAIS, check the veracity of any claims by going to the source. Several good places to start are the U.S. Department of Agriculture at www.usda.gov/nais, the Equine Species Working Group (ESWG) at www.equinespeciesworkinggroup.com and the Virginia Animal ID Program at www.vanimalid.info.
The USDA site will give you updated information on the national NAIS and all its requirements. The ESWG site offers one of the most balanced evaluations of NAIS and it’s effect on the equine industry. The Virginia site offers guidelines for NAIS compliance within Virginia.
Research, form an opinion and get involved. Go to the three websites listed above and let them know how you feel about NAIS. Go to the Virginia Horse News Get Involved page to see how to contact your state and federal representatives. If you don’t, be content that others will, and you will have to abide by their decisions.