The ability to rapidly trace a disease to its source, contain it and eliminate it is the main objective of the National Animal Identification System. Long term, it is critical to the health of the U.S. pork industry. Animal identification’s current status is complex and many challenges await solutions.

Participation in NAIS continues to vary among species groups, which makes the program’s current status, and its future course, uneven and difficult to assess. To complicate matters further, some of the databases already established for traceability don’t “talk” to each other, which prevents the smooth transfer of the necessary information among producers, packers and government officials.

From the beginning, NAIS was designed to protect producers’ livelihood and preserve market access. In the event of a serious disease outbreak, officials must be able to track an animal back to its origin within 48 hours to prevent a potentially devastating crisis. Right now, NAIS as a whole falls short of this 48-hour objective. 

“We are almost there with the pork industry,” says USDA Undersecretary Bruce Knight.

The pork industry serves as the role model for animal identification and traceability, and it’s no wonder. Since 1988, the pork industry has employed an industry-wide ID system, which contributed to the successful pseudorabies eradication program.

“As far as our industry is concerned, we have a positive perception of premises registration,” according to Patrick Webb, DVM, National Pork Board’s director of swine health programs. As of Sept. 1, more than 41,000 swine premises were registered with NAIS. That’s 61 percent of the sites in the United States listed as having swine on the premises.

Where Work is Needed

Premises registration and animal identification have been a tougher sell in the beef industry. Lack of vertical integration and skepticism among beef producers have kept them from registering premises, which has hampered traceability progress.

The average traceback schedule for bovine tuberculosis today takes 125 days. As a result, USDA and other groups are giving the beef industry a “high priority” status for NAIS.

Some producers and groups continue to resist NAIS efforts over confidentiality concerns. They fear that being part of a national database will compromise their operations’ security. For some, such as the Amish, religious or political objections stand in the way and prevent program participation. But participation from all animal sectors is needed for the program to succeed, and short of mandatory participation, it appears there will be “hold-outs.” The key is to minimize them.

While premises registration is NAIS’ foundation, it is only the first step. “Premises registration alone will not get the job done,” says Neil Hammerschmidt, with USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service. To maintain momentum and help provide much-needed continuity for the program’s success, the format for animal identification numbers and premises identification numbers must focus on a single standard. (See sidebar below.)

There Are Benefits

All pork producers recognize the threat that porcine respiratory and reproductive syndrome poses to the industry, and the tremendous financial relief that’s possible by containing and eradicating the disease.

“We’re not there yet, but eradicating the PRRS virus from the swine herd is many producers’ goal, as well as groups such as the American Association of Swine Veterinarians,” says David Nolan, DVM, chairman of the National Institute for Animal Agriculture swine health committee.

But, control and potential eradication of disease through animal identification and traceability are not the pork industry’s only opportunities. With a valid, working traceability system, packers are able to increase trust among domestic and international consumers, which is critical to ensure strong markets for pork.

“It’s about your livelihood and economic viability,” Knight says, in regard to animal identification and premises registration. He calls for the continued cooperation among individual producers as well as participation from each industry to achieve the traceability needed in the United States.  In the case of a serious disease outbreak, meat consumption and exports of many species’ products would likely plunge, not just the diagnosed species.

Looking Ahead

Animal identification and traceability will only gain in importance among government officials and consumers in the years ahead. “Demand for traceability continues to grow,” says Collette Schultz Kaster, Farmland vice president, quality technical services. “The demand to understand how a group of pigs was raised is greater than ever. Some customers are very interested in full traceability programs. I may need to know how a group of animals has been fed, medicated or marketed.”

So far, participation in NAIS is voluntary. But will it remain that way?

That depends on how quickly the food-animal industry, as a whole, attains the 48-hour traceback goal. No plans exist to make the program mandatory at this time. However, in the event of a serious disease outbreak, all bets are off.

Premises Tag Standards Needed

“The swine industry is encouraging USDA to quickly establish premises identification tag standards so they can start using the premises tags to enhance traceability and surveillance work,” says David Nolan, DVM, chairman of the National Institute for Animal Agriculture swine health committee.  The tag he’s refering to will carry the USDA shield, seven-digit premises identification number and will need to conform to other tag standards being developed.

“The goal is to use the tag to identify sows and boars entering the harvest chain to improve their traceability,” Nolan adds. “Once approved, producers will be able to order production tags that are compliant with premises identification number standards, eliminating the need for a second ‘official’ ID tag in addition to their normal sow tags.”

The standardized seven-character premises identification number will be used as the location identifier for all disease-control programs. “The premises number is essential for group/lot identification and will identify the origin and destination premises on interstate certificates of veterinary inspection,” according to Patrick Webb, DVM, National Pork Board’s director of swine health programs. “Producers also will be adding premises identification numbers to their bills of lading for market hogs that enter the harvest chain.”

Animal Identification, Critical for All Industries

Animal identification and traceability are critically important issues facing U.S. producers. These topics and other issues including country-of-origin labeling and food safety were addressed at the 2007 ID Info Expo held in Kansas City.

“All industry stakeholders have some important goals to accomplish as we move forward,” says Scott Stuart, board chairman for the National Institute for Animal Agriculture.

The National Animal Identification System is the voluntary information system that will help protect against a catastrophic disease outbreak, maintain consumer confidence by assuring a safe food supply and help maintain uninterrupted access to foreign markets.

“Traceability is the key to animal disease — to find it quickly, control it and eradicate it,” says John Clifford, Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service deputy administrator for veterinary services. “Traceability is vital to our disease response abilities.”

“If you can’t locate diseased animals, what assurance can you give to other states, or to your trading partners that you can quickly locate and eradicate the diseases you find?” he questions. “That’s the problem, and it will continue to be a problem until all producers grasp this issue, embrace it and move forward.”

The industry must be prepared for an emergency disease outbreak and be able to quickly identify infected animals and reliably trace them to prevent catastrophic economic losses such as the United Kingdom faced in the 2001 FMD outbreak.