With USDA announcing that the National Animal Identification System will fade away, animal traceability in the United States faces a renewed uncertainty. While the pork industry has had an identification program in place since 1988 and leads in premises identification, it remains vulnerable until other species embrace the idea.

The proposal is to replace NAIS with a new system that will place increased responsibility on individual states and tribal territories versus USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service.

According to USDA, disease traceability will be required only for animals moving via interstate commerce into marketing channels. To read a USDA Questions and Answers brochure on the new system, go to porkmag.com/news.

The question is will individual states have the determination, commitment and resources to build a fully functional traceability system that can protect the livestock industry in the event of a disease outbreak? With the fact that many state budgets are already at the breaking point, the question looms even larger.

With each state in charge of its own system, coordination and communication issues will be a significant challenge. "Clearly USDA must create a system that allows for quick and accurate trace-back across state borders in an animal disease emergency, or there is no point in the new system,” says Ron DeHaven, DVM, chief executive officer for the American Veterinary Medical Association.

Joelle Hayden, APHIS spokesperson, reports the agency would adapt as many NAIS elements as possible for use in state systems, particularly those related to information technology infrastructure and animal identification tags. "However, it will be up to the states and tribal nations to decide how they want to use them, if at all," she notes.

Pork magazine interviewed Gene Hugoson, Minnesota Department of Agriculture commissioner, on the proposed state-based system and the challenges that remain. Hugoson has been instrumental in developing traceability in Minnesota and believes aggressive participation by all states is crucial to promote and maintain program success.

Q: Why did USDA end NAIS?

A: USDA officials came to the realization that the way they were pursuing and implementing the program would not result in an effective animal identification and traceability system. USDA’s NAIS comment period showed that it wasn’t going to work. There’s a certain level of mistrust of the federal government doing this type of thing.

The animal identification and traceability effort now has an opportunity to succeed, but many things have to happen, and there’s no guarantee. For one thing, states will have to step up, and hopefully they will. It will require drive and determination by every state.

Q: Will there still need to be one entity coordinating the states’ efforts?

A: At the federal level, there still needs to be one entity overseeing this. For instance, if an emergency arises or if there’s an international inquiry there should be one entity that would then be able to contact the appropriate individuals or groups for immediate action or data.

That entity doesn’t necessarily need access to all of the states’ data, and I believe that would reduce privacy concerns about the program.

Each state also will need an individual or an office that will handle tracking inquiries by other states as well as federal inquiries. It will need to be available 24/7, 365 days a year.

Q: What do you see as the biggest challenge facing the states?

A: It will be determining how best to provide the parameters or outcomes that the federal government requires for the program. Another challenge will be the availability of federal funding for states.

There must be guideposts or parameters at the USDA level to determine what information will need to be available so that each state will know what information it will have to provide and how it will need to modify current systems. It’s unreasonable to think that a full system will be in place all at once, so the questions become what are the priorities and how do we build it?

Some groups such as the pork or poultry industries have more steps in place than others. The beef industry, for instance, may be where we need a workable traceability system the most because of problems such as bovine tuberculosis.

Q: Will animal ID detractors still be a factor, even with a state-based program?

A: Yes. The new program will not produce overnight acceptance. I think the resistance will be less than under the federal scenario, but it’s certainly not going to be a cakewalk.

Part of what we need to do is convince people that a successful program is not just for the “industry” or for the government, but for producers themselves. It’s not just a matter of wanting to do it; it’s a matter of needing to do it for their own financial viability.

Q: Will states need to get up to speed immediately?

A: Yes. USDA is hoping to have a plan in place by the end of this year. If we at least have an idea of the direction and a timeline, it will help.

One of the ironies in the traceability issue is that in the case of BSE and even Novel H1N1 influenza, the U.S. problems were impacted by what happened in other countries. I’m not placing blame, but in both cases, U.S. meat production became suspect due to no problem of its own. As a result, we lost trade access in important international markets.

We need to get our traceability up to speed quickly to maintain a competitive position. Canada, for example, is moving aggressively to put a system in place and soon may be able to respond to an emergency faster than the United States. As a result, the United States runs the risk of being kept out of some markets while our competitors are better positioned. We need to be able to assure our trading partners that we can contain and eradicate animal diseases. I'd also like to see us integrate a system that works well with traceability systems in other countries.