USDA’s efforts to implement a national animal identification system have been met with confusion and outrage. With so many forms of identification already in use, horse owners question the reasons behind yet another government program.
Bruce Knight, a soft-spoken Clark Kent lookalike, finds himself in an unenviable position. As the U.S. Department of Agriculture undersecretary for marketing and regulatory programs, he should be considered Superman, overseeing a process for the livestock industry that would save it from sure devastation should disease, occurring naturally or introduced through bio-terrorism, strike the nation. But instead he is, to a growing number of livestock owners, the Joker.
The issue has all the elements of a thrilling comic story line: an evil corporate conglomerate working with a shady government system invades and takes over the lives and property of innocent citizens. Reality, however, is less dramatic, more confusing, and, for the horse industry, has no clear plot or logic when it comes to a national animal identification system.
The inescapable reality, too, is that a national system is coming, like it or not.
On the surface, the idea is actually pretty simple and has been a leading topic among food animal producers and processors, largely beef, for years. It became a high priority following an outbreak of bovine spongiform encephalopathy, or mad cow disease, in 2003, leading to a short-term, but significant, drop in U.S. meat exports.
With a functioning national animal identification system, animals and resulting meat products could be identified through a database that would allow the government to trace the origin of a disease outbreak within 48 hours, for “rapid containment.” With this program, demanding, health-conscious consumers, both foreign and domestic, would be even more confident in a food supply already considered the safest in the world.
More importantly, in the global marketplace it would put the United States on an even playing field with other countries already using such a system.
The question remains, however, where horses fit in this scenario, particularly since the slaughter of horses for human consumption has all but disappeared.
“That’s a very fine line we walk, in that horses are unique, but they are livestock,” says Billy Smith, PhD, the American Quarter Horse Association’s executive director of information technology and co-chair of the Equine Species Working Group. The Group was formed through the American Horse Council to provide input and direction to USDA in the formation of its ID guidelines for horses. Smith also sits on the National Institute of Animal Agriculture equine ID subcommittee.
“Out of all the animals out there that move, that may have an effect on our food supply, horses are going to be involved, not because we eat them but because they are associated with all that we do eat,” says ESWG co-chair Jim Morehead, a Lexington, Kentucky, equine veterinarian and the group’s intermediary with the American Association of Equine Practitioners.
“I’m not being an alarmist, but I think in this day and age it’s time that everybody at least came into the conversation with their eyes open,” he says. “Ten years ago, who would have thought we would live in the world that we live in today? Everything has changed.”
Unfortunately, the conversation remains a puzzling one.
“One of the problems,” Smith says, “is that there has been very little detail from USDA on how NAIS might look when it’s rolled out. Where there is a void of information, somebody is going to fill that up. It’s been filled up with both accurate information and some inaccurate information.”
Part of that inaccurate information, he said, has been the perceived collaboration of ESWG in the development of an ID system.
“ESWG has been made guilty by association,” agrees Morehead. “USDA came to the horse industry and asked for input on what they planned on doing. I think the horse industry responded very well in organizing a group representing each part of the American Horse Council, and working through it.
“But all along, has the group come out in favor of the NAIS? No. No. We’re not advocates of NAIS, but if it’s going to be done, we’re advocates of it having as minimal an impact on us as possible.”
ESWG has submitted its final recommendations to USDA, spelling out what it calls “general principles” as a condition of the horse industry’s involvement. Chief among them are ensuring that initiation of the system be voluntary, that any mandatory system be tested before implementation, and that information remain confidential, excluding information covered by Freedom of Information Act public-disclosure requirements.
The group also advocates the government utilize existing identification methods, be it branding, health certificates, horse passports or microchips, to identify horses, and that any system put in place not be in effect until 2010.
“The point ESWG is attempting to make with its recommendations is that horses are unique based on their movement patterns, and our recommendation is very simple in regard to movement,” Smith explains. “Maintain the status quo on movement, and if a horse is required to show a health certificate or Coggins test, that be sufficient to record movement. If a health certificate or Coggins is not required, as is the case with a horse that spends all its time in a backyard or on a ranch, then movement of that horse is not that important. It becomes burdensome on the horse industry.”
Certainly, livestock producers, including horse owners, are no strangers to identification systems, such as branding, ear tags or tattoos. The first mandated identification program took place in the 1940s to identify cattle vaccinated for brucellosis, and racehorses have been identified through lip tattoos for almost the same time span.
For cattle producer and Montana Stockgrowers Association President Stephen Roth, animal identification is, at minimum, practical and potentially valuable.
“One old-timer told me once that there is nothing so flat that it doesn’t have two sides,” says Roth, CEO of IX Ranch in Big Sandy, Montana.
But even he, owner of 45 Quarter Horses, has a hard time bringing a concept he views as valuable, practical, even necessary, for cattle producers to the same parallel where horses are concerned.
“Go back to the implications there are from an animal welfare perspective,” he says. “You want to keep horses healthy and provide ownership responsibility, but I don’t think the system should be mandatory. I think the government’s role is to figure out some sort of standardization and set up criteria so you don’t have 15 different types of tags or IDs.
“For the owner, it needs to be value driven, so it falls to organizations like Montana Stockgrowers or AQHA to say, ‘We’re not trying to cram this down your throat, but here are the advantages of doing it.’ Being a capitalist, I believe this is an opportunity to create a service area for people in the horse industry and make it worth their while.”
In all likelihood, most horse owners have some whiff that an identification system is being discussed, but few are truly educated about the program. That, according to Morehead, falls squarely on USDA’s shoulders.
“Even with the input of the working groups, how good a job has USDA done educating the public about what the system entails,” he asks. “They’ve done a poor job.”
Even Bruce Knight seems a bit perplexed at what horse owners believe about the program.
“I still hear from horse owners that they believe we are going to require ear tags in horses,” he says, “which has never been the case.”
For 71-year-old Jane Bryant, the lack of, and disparity in, information is a telling truth. She and her husband, Lee, make their home in the small rural community of Woolwine, Virginia, and typify nearly 80 percent of horse owners in the United States who ride recreationally. A largely conservative district, government intervention here is an unwelcome visitor. This is evident in the fact that moonshine stills continue to operate, legally and illegally, in the woods of Patrick County.
The Bryants are keenly engaged in the activities of their state farm bureau, with NAIS being discussed as it relates to area dairy farmers.
Horses, however … not so much.
“There was conversation about that in the past for dairy farmers, and anything you implement is going to have setbacks and glitches,” she says. “But, for the most part, people didn’t fight that. They could see what happened in England [with BSE outbreaks], and when mad cow disease came out of Canada and into America, it frightened them and they could see the value of [an identification system] for food animals.
“For horses, we’ve been told practically nothing. But it’s ridiculous, asinine, and there is no reason for it. Animal identification is for food protection. With slaughter gone, there is no other purpose for a horse other than riding it or putting it in front of a plow. So what’s the purpose for it?”
With just three horses on their 80 acres, she is skeptical about the logic surrounding control of disease in horses and possible affects on humans.
“That’s a smokescreen, an absolute and utter smoke screen,” Bryant says. “You tell me what disease have they heard about that affects people. West Nile Virus? That comes from a mosquito and there is a vaccine for that. This [system] will not improve any existing systems, and what concerns me is getting the government involved in something like this, shutting down borders and inconveniencing people who want to show or breed horses. It doesn’t make sense.”
Making sense of it all for the horse industry has been ESWG’s job, and now that the group’s recommendations have been made final, Morehead would like to see the group viewed as an industry watchdog.
“This group is well informed of what goes on in the horse industry, and we have been very open [to the idea] that if a horse doesn’t move off premises, never requires a health certificate, never requires a Coggins, why does it need to be in the system?” he says. “And USDA—being the picture of efficiency they’ve always been—why does it need more complications in the system?”
What seems to raise the ire of the system’s critics, however, is that NAIS is a sweeping measure involving virtually all animal species and sizes of operations, and has had no Congressional review regarding potential constitutional infringements against privacy and property rights.
Key to their concerns is premises registration, a step USDA terms as the foundation for NAIS. Furthermore, critics say the system smacks of commercial benefits for the companies who had a part in its creation as members of National Institute for Animal Agriculture, including processing giant Cargill Meat Solutions, microchip manufacturer Destron-Fearing and pharmaceutical company Fort Dodge, among others.
Critics also point to measures taken on the state level forcing animal owners to take part in premises registration, even though, on the federal level, the program has been touted as “voluntary.”
This past March, in what could be positioned as agricultural blackmail, North Carolina would not allow horse owners to purchase hay at below market prices without a premises registration, and Colorado met with a revolt by parents in late 2007 when it refused entry to its state fair from youth exhibitors who did not have a premises registration. Colorado is just one of several states implementing or considering the practice.
Colorado backed off the requirement, but in the meantime, to meet USDA requirements for millions of dollars in grants, states like New York and Pennsylvania dumped records they had gathered into the USDA/NAIS premises registration repository without the knowledge of farmers. Registration is already mandatory in Wisconsin.
Those steps, says Knight, are ones determined by the states, and funding provided by USDA is no different than many other cooperative agreements it has had with state animal health departments in the past.
“Implementing the program,” he says, “costs money.”
In a July 2007, a report issued by the U.S. Government Accountability Office describes those agreements and USDA’s development of the system as poorly constructed and expensive. From 2004 through 2007, $118,050,000 had been made available to USDA to implement NAIS, and the GAO seems unimpressed with how it’s been used.
“USDA awarded $35 million in NAIS cooperative agreements from fiscal years 2004 through 2006 to 49 states, 29 tribes, and two territories to help identify effective approaches to register premises, and identify and track animals,” the report reads. “However, USDA has not consistently monitored or formally evaluated the results of cooperative agreements, or consistently shared the results with states, industry groups and other stakeholders.
“As a result, USDA cannot be assured the agreements’ intended outcomes have been achieved, and, furthermore, that lessons are learned and best practices are used to inform the program’s progress.”
The report goes on to say that no comprehensive cost estimate or cost-benefit analysis for the implementation and maintenance of NAIS currently exists. As a result, it is not known how much is required in federal, state and industry resources to achieve rapid and effective traceback, or whether the potential benefits of the program outweigh the costs.
That report stimulated the development of USDA’s current business plan, which was issued in December 2007. In it, USDA’s position on confidentiality, technological neutrality and voluntary participation is reiterated.
“[Former agriculture] secretary Mike Johanns, current secretary Ed Schafer and I have been and remain committed to the program being voluntary,” says Knight. “If you read the business plan in regard to horses, you’ll find that horses that stay on the owner’s property will not be affected at all.”
For ESWG Chairman Morehead, that position had better stay that way.
“If a horse doesn’t move, even in a mandatory system, which USDA says there never will be, those horses are not going to be included in that,” he says. “If USDA tries that, I’m telling you the wheels will fall off.”
Even AQHA’s Billy Smith scoffs a bit at premises registration.
“We already have a premises registration,” he says. “It’s called an address.”
It’s a lack of clarity that seems to fit the many misconceptions surrounding NAIS. First, it was that ear tags would be required (never were), that the government can somehow track microchips via a global positioning system (not possible), and, now, that breed registries are going to be required to turn over personal information to USDA.
“That is simply false,” says Smith, who oversees the database system storing AQHA’s registration and membership information. “No breed registry I know of has been contacted by USDA for any information. And even the most concrete plan I have seen from USDA calls for requests for information only in the event of a disease outbreak.”
He also says, as does Morehead, that he continues to field questions regarding the safety and use of microchips.
“I have never seen anything official from USDA that indicates it will require microchips,” Smith says. “You have to divorce the two ideas. Microchipping is one thing. NAIS is another.”
He notes that AQHA has been recording chip numbers while registering horses for years.
“Microchipping is one thing. NAIS is another,” he says. “Microchipping, from my view, has value, but needs to be something an individual horse owner sees value in, and chooses to do.”
That is the battle Debi Metcalfe, founder of Stolen Horse International, is finding she now has to fight in the fallout over the animal identification dispute.
“When people ask me about [NAIS], I tell them we don’t take a position on it because if we did, somebody will get mad at us,” she says. “Our position is we’re trying to help people find horses, and we ID horses to keep them from disappearing. Chipping is one of the things we recommend the most.”
Concern that microchips cause cancer has also swept the Internet chat rooms and sites critical of the system.
“There have been about 300,000 horses microchipped in the state of Louisiana over the past 12 or 15 years,” says Morehead. “You would think that if there was an increased incidence of cancer associated with the microchip, the state diagnostic lab would know about it and they don’t.
“I tell people to be practical. They have to do what they feel is best. The people convinced it will cause cancer in horses, you’re not going to talk them out of it.”
Even for horse owners who choose to implant their horses with microchips, uncertainty over what type of chip they should implant only adds to an increasingly murky picture.
“[People] are afraid the government is going to change the microchip scanners,” Metcalf says. “In the United States, they’re almost all set for 125 kHz. By changing the scanners, it’s going to make it hard to read the 125s. Plus, all the small-animal vets use the 125 chip.”
That is one area where ESWG recommendations seem to be at odds with the industry, as it recommends 134.2 kHz chips compatible with technology standards published by the International Organization for Standardization.
“That doesn’t mean that if you have one of the non-IOS chips in your horse you have to re-chip that horse,” says Smith. “What we’d hope is that over time the chipping industry would use a single technical standard and that it would reduce confusion.”
Confusion. Despite four years of work, hundreds of pages of information and Internet conversation, confusion still seems to be the end product to date, with little true assurance that recommendations put forth by ESWG are going to be worth the paper they’re written on.
“I certainly respect the work each of the working groups have put into their recommendations,” says Knight, when asked if USDA is likely to accept ESWG’s advice. “But we will have to weigh those considerations against the scientific facts and political issues facing the system.”
For Morehead, accepting the recommendations is USDA’s only viable choice.
“Do I think the USDA can be off-center and make up their own rules? No question,” he says. “But I think they have found it politically better for them, to ultimately accomplish their goal, to work with industry, not against industry. If they draw up their own guidelines without considering our input, they’re destined for failure.”
Julie Bryant is a Texas-based writer. Send comments on this story to [email protected].