News : The number of the beasts

National Animal Identification System: End Times conspiracy or good horse sense?

When the scientists start to freak, we generally freak right along with them. It’s just good horse sense, really. (Or perchance we’ve watched too many movies.) At any rate, few circumstances during the past handful of years have tizzied and confounded malady experts more than the brain-eating of bovine spongiform encephalopathy (mad-cow disease) and the potential global pandemic H5N1 (avian flu). Accordingly, then, these two represent — with the possible exception of the deadly but short-lived SARS virus — the most publicly fretted-about new contagions of the last decade, and perhaps the best reasons to fear normally docile animals since Tippi Hedren took a stray seagull to the forehead.

The government’s answer, for now, is to count sheep.

Sheep, as well as cattle, poultry, goats, horses, zebras, alpacas, exotic birds — any species of livestock or fowl that leaves the herd or flock into which it was born (via buying or selling, for instance) or is exposed to animals from another herd or flock. All of these cases fall under the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Animal Identification System, a voluntary-cooperation (for now) project designed to aid animal-health officials in pinpointing and tracking animals affected by a disease outbreak like BSE or bird flu.

“If, at some point, a disease is found in an animal, the ultimate goal would be to be able to trace that disease back to its source, and all of the animals it had come in contact with, within 48 hours of detection,” says Kenny Edgar, NAIS program director for the Texas Animal Health Commission, which is charged with implementing the plan in the Lone Star State. “The main goal, the main benefit of it, is just to ensure the health of the livestock herd in the United States.”

The NAIS, as proposed, incorporates three phases. The first of these — premises identification — requires an owner or manager of any site that raises or handles livestock or fowl of any kind, to register (at a biennial fee of $20) for a Premises Identification Number from the TAHC or USDA. Phase two, animal identification, asks that the animals be fitted with 15-digit I.D. “tags,” linked via database to the PIN of their “premises-of-origin.” Tracking is the final step, wherein tagged animals are monitored and their movement, commingling, and slaughter recorded.

“It’s going to be able to help quickly detect diseases, and then to eradicate them more efficiently and effectively,” says TAHC Information Officer Carla Everett. “Without sufficient record, it takes us a long time We end up having to go through notebooks, uh, cigar boxes full of receipts, I mean, it can be a very tedious process, where `NAIS` should be very streamlined.”

Texas originally planned to make phase one mandatory on July 1, 2006, but TAHC says the decision has now been put off until winter or spring of 2007. Compliance with any part of the system remains optional, for now.

“`The Commission` postponed it in the hope that, sometime in 2007, some definite dates will be set by the USDA,” Edgar says.

Others, however, think there are less forthcoming reasons for the delay.

“This topic is so hot, so hot right now, that these politicians don’t want to touch it,” says Larry Butler, a self-described “very small” organic farmer who houses about 100 chickens at Austin’s Boggy Creek Farm. “This is an election year. And that’s why it’s been put on hold until 2007 then they’re gonna cram it through.”

The possible switch to compulsory status for NAIS regulations has ruffled more than a few feathers, mostly those belonging to smaller farmers, who say the system is unfairly weighted against them. Under the rules, large groups of animals born, raised, and bought together (poultry or swine, for instance, which are often bought in bulk by “factory” farmers), may be registered under a single number, while individually bought or less-uniformly-raised stock (the common method for small farmers), must be tagged individually.

“If that animal ever leaves the premises, it has to be tagged,” Butler says. “Well, these tags cost money. You know, three, four, five, six bucks ... You got 50, 60, 100 head of cow, you got a hundred head of cow, you’ve gotta buy a $4 chip for each one of them, that’s 400 bucks.”

Tagging methods can include ear tags for cattle (estimated price: $1-2), ankle or wing bands for fowl, and tiny, subdermal microchip implants for horses, whose owners are typically more aesthetically fussy, Everett said.

Other concerns about the proposed program: a 24-hour or one-business-day window to report animal movement, and a possible $1,000 per-diem fine for non-compliance. Edgar, however, stresses that NAIS program details are not finalized. As for the grand-a-day, he says it’s a general penalty that’s been on the TAHC books for years, but that “we have used that approximately two or three times since we’ve been in existence Since, um, 1893.”

Nonetheless, doubters remain.

“This thing is not gonna stop avian flu,” Butler says. “This thing is not gonna stop BSE. This thing is not gonna stop any disease. They think that this will help trace back any disease It’s not worth losing our rights to privacy, it’s not worth giving up our freedoms Monetarily, it’s gonna put a lot of small farmers and ranchers out of business.”

Brad Stufflebeam, president of the Texas Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association, says that while NAIS may help slow the spread of an outbreak, it is by no means the best solution. Mad-cow disease, he points out, is caused by the presence of animal byproducts in (normally herbivorous) cows’ diets.

“Disease prevention is production methods,” says Stufflebeam. “Big business doesn’t want to talk about that and look at production methods, because they are the cause of it. They are the problem with production methods.”

Not all farmers or farming advocates are completely opposed to the plan, however. Gene Hall, spokesman for the Texas Farm Bureau, says that while he’s glad the program is currently voluntary, NAIS will likely be worth the trouble.

“I don’t think there’s any question that the federal government will at some point in the not-too-distant future require producers of livestock to identify those animals,” Hall says. “And quite frankly, should, in 2010, an outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease come to these shores, we’ll probably be very glad we did.”

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