The Federal Animal ID Program


uring a public meeting last March in Ellsworth,
Maine, two of the state’s top agricultural officials were “pied.”
The pies weren’t apple or cherry—they were manure. The
meeting was one of 50 being held across the state to persuade livestock
producers to sign up for a state animal identification program linked
to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Animal Identification
System (NAIS). Following the cow pie action the state backed off
pushing its ID program, deciding to wait and see how the feds proceed. 

The Ellsworth “big stink” represented what Maine journalist
Andy Kekacs termed a “firestorm of criticism” of the animal
ID program. Such resistance is spreading fast across the nation.
Small farmers and ranchers who raise livestock are banding together
in virtually every state to oppose NAIS. A virtual battle is also
growing on the Internet to make the resistance more effective nationally. 

Opponents say the USDA’s animal ID program is designed to favor
“the big boys” in the industry over the small timers.
They charge that the program’s added expenses will drive smaller
livestock folks out of business. They claim it is unconstitutional,
an invasion of privacy, and a violation of property rights. They
insist that the federal program will create a huge bureaucracy that
will not achieve its stated purpose, which is to stop the spread
of potential epidemics such as Mad Cow Disease. 

1984 Meets Animal Farm 


s the USDA puts it, the goal of the National
Animal Identification System is “to establish a system that
can identify all premises and animals that have had direct contact
with a foreign animal disease or domestic disease of concern within
48 hours of discovery.” Congress gave the USDA authority to
create such a system in 2002 through the Animal Health Protection
Act. Subsequent to that and the 2003 outbreak of Mad Cow Disease
in Washington State, came the U.S. Animal Identification Plan (USAIP),
the predecessor to NAIS. According to the USDA, “a partnership
of more than 100 animal and livestock professionals from 70 associations,
organizations, and government developed the USAIP.” Critics
of NAIS charge that industry heavyweights such as the National Cattlemen’s
Beef Association, Monsanto, Cargill Meat, and the National Pork
Producers dominated that group. 

Jeffries is one of the most active and informed critics of NAIS.
He operates a blog (www. from his homestead in West
Topsham, Vermont that receives 17,000 emails a day and has had over
80,000 hits since the end of January 2006. According to Jeffries,
“Big Agribusiness” came up with the animal ID system “to
better sell their products in foreign markets” after U.S. beef
was banned in some countries due to fear of Mad Cow Disease. They
were “joined by animal tag manufacturers looking to maximize
their market for unnecessary and costly goods. These groups were
able to advance their plan without legislative review by claiming
it was a Homeland Security issue to secure our national herd and
food supply against terrorists. This let USDA create NAIS as a regulation
under the PATRIOT Act without the approval of Congressional represen

The USDA reports, “On April 27, 2004, Agriculture Secretary
Ann Veneman announced the framework for implementing the NAIS.”
A year later the USDA released its draft plan for NAIS. Word soon
got around about its specifics, igniting the “firestorm of
criticism” that led to cow pies being flung at the Maine agricultural
officials this year. 

Three Strikes and You’re Out of Business 


he NAIS has three components: premises identification,
animal identification, and animal tracking. Premises are all the
places in the U.S. that raise cattle, deer and elk, goats and sheep,
llamas and alpacas, poultry and pigs. The USDA wants each premise’s
address, contact name, type of premises, and phone number. All premises
will be assigned a seven digit premises ID number. All information
collected will be fed into a state database linked to a federal
database, which is connected to global positioning satellites. The
USDA assures us that all data will remain private, used only for
its intended purposes. Critics doubt this, especially since data
will also be shared with “big boy” industry database owners. 

Animal identification involves tagging all the animals on all the
premises registered—the USDA estimates there are 40 million
such critters. Each animal will be assigned a 15 digit animal ID
number. But an exception is being made for premises with a large
amount of animals that are bred and moved in groups. In those cases
these premises can get 13 digit “group/lot” ID numbers. 

Thus big operatiors will have to purchase only one animal ID tag
for each “group/lot,” while small timers will have to
buy one for each animal. A 2003 article in


“Bigger is Cheaper,” reported on a study by Kansas State
University. The study, a joint


/KSU venture, calculated
the cost per animal ID and associated technology. This was $24.66
for a herd of 62, compared to $3.99 for a herd of 1,250. The average
national cattle herd is about 20. 

The study assumed the animal tag was a radio frequency ID, which
can track each animal. This technology requires other equipment,
such as software and electronic readers. The USDA says it is “technology
neutral” on this issue and that other forms of ID, such as
retinal scans and DNA, are under consideration by the industry.” 

In the third NAIS component, animal tracking, the USDA will use
its Animal Tracing Processing System, “commonly known as the
metadase system, that will allow state and federal animal health
offcials to query NAIS and private databases during a disease investigation.”
The USDA is currently entering into “cooperative agreements”
with “private [i.e., agribusiness] database owners.” According
to the May 16

Ag Weekly

newspaper, under NAIS animal owners
must report, within 24 hours, any missing animal or missing tag
and any sale, death, or slaughter of any animal or any movement
of an animal off or within a farm or homestead. 

The USDA now maintains that participation in NAIS is voluntary—a
change from its 2005 draft—“while the system is being
phased in.” But it also states, “If the marketplace, along
with State and Federal identification programs, does not provide
adequate incentives for achieving participation, USDA may be required
to implement regulations.” Translation: make participation


n an April 2006 press release,
current Secretary of Agriculture Mike Johanns announced his agency’s
timeline for implementation of NAIS. “We recognize this represents
one of the largest systematic changes ever faced by the livestock
industry,” he said. In the release the USDA stated, “The
implementation plan continues to set an aggressive timeline for
insuring full implementation of NAIS by 2009.” 

agency claimed “Fifty States, five Tribes and two Territories,
as of March 2006, registered 235,000 premises, accounting for approximately
10 percent of the national total.” The USDA’s timeline
is to have 25 percent of premises registered by 2007, 70 percent
by 2008 and 100 percent (2 million) by 2009. 

But reports on and other websites detail USDA efforts
to assign premises ID numbers (PINs) without the owners’ permission.
At the end of May Walter Jeffries wrote, “A while back the
USDA called me and tried to get me to answer questions so they could
sign me up for a PIN. Today I got a call from the government again
and the woman wanted to give me a PIN number. I asked what she was
about and she would not say. She just said she needed to give me
a PIN number. I refused and hung up on her. Farmers and homesteaders
in other states have had the same experience.” 

Another recent report, from the Texas Animal Health Commission Watch,
“Phone survey = Premises Registration SCAM,” confirms
Jef fries’s assertions: “Everyone needs to be aware that
there is a possibility that some USDA/TAHC ‘Hired Guns’
or unnamed subcontractors are in the process of conducting some
sort of agricultural/farm survey. We have received word that this
is going on east of Dallas. The phone number showing up on caller
ID is from the 405 area code, which is in the Oklahoma City area.
They call you up on the pretext of conducting a survey. Later you
find out you have been voluntarily signed up on the premises ID
tax roll. Do not be a victim.” 

As to the second component of NAIS, the USDA stated last April,
“The animal identification phase is being implemented by March
2006 and 100 percent (40 million) of new animals tagged by 2009. 

In May Congressperson Ron Paul (RTX) introduced an amendment to
the USDA’s annual spending bill that would have cut further
funding for NAIS. That effort failed, but in a statement titled
“Stop the National Animal ID System,” he remarked (in
part) later that month: “The intrusive monitoring system amounts
to nothing more than a tax on livestock owners, allowing the federal
government detailed access to their private property…. Once
NAIS becomes mandatory, any failure to report and tag an animal
subjects the owner to $1,000 per day fines…. NAIS also forces
livestock owners to comply with new paperwork and monitoring regulations.
These farmers and ranchers would be paying for an assault on their
property and privacy rights, as NAIS empowers federal agents to
enter and seize property without a warrant—a blatant violation
of the 4th amendment. More than anything, NAIS places our family
farmers and ranchers at an eco nomic disadvantage against agri business
and overseas competition.” 

Paul pinned his hopes on Senate action to defund and stop NAIS.
But perhaps the real power to stop it lies in the strength of opponents
mobilizing on their farms and homesteads, in their communities,
through their blogs, websites, and discussion groups spreading information
like a firestorm.

Steinberg is a veteran activist and writer living in Connecticut.