What began as a federal move toward a mandatory animal identification program has been knocked down a notch. But making the National Animal Identification System voluntary doesn’t mean it will fade from existence, says one University of Georgia expert.

NAIS was designed to inventory each livestock producer’s premises and animals and to provide an industry-wide, 48-hour trace-back system. The system came about as a way to stop the spread of such predominately animal diseases as BSE, or bovine spongiform encephalopathy, by tracking it to its source. BSE is commonly known as mad cow disease.

“To be absolutely correct, the U.S. Department of Agriculture has put out a draft of its user’s guide for a comment period for the next couple of months,” says Ronnie Silcox, an associate professor of animal and dairy science at the UGA College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences. “As of November, their position is that NAIS is a voluntary program, and the program is still set up pretty much as always.”

With the demand from countries, like Japan, for meat that can be traced by age and origin, the need for animal identification still exists.

As of Nov. 27, only 333,184 premises had been registered in the United States. That’s a small fraction of the more than 1.43 million American meat producers listed in the 2002 census data.

For more than a year, Silcox has worked to help Georgia’s producers meet NAIS standards. Approximately 40,000 such livestock facilities exist throughout the state. Less than 10 percent of those have premise ID numbers, he says.

“That would include cattle, swine, poultry, horses, goats, sheep, llamas and alpacas,” Silcox says.

Because NAIS has become a completely voluntary program, Silcox says the USDA will continue to support the program, but the industry will develop it.

“Those producers who are involved in marketing programs and marketing groups of cattle will still want to be involved in an ID program,” Silcox says.

Smaller producers may opt to get a premises ID number, and ID their cows, pigs or llamas later, he says.

“Registry of premises will help in tracking diseases even if every animal is not registered,” Silcox says.

According to Chuck Conner, the USDA's deputy secretary, in a quote to BEEF magazine, the NAIS “is voluntary with a capital V. Not a currently voluntary, then maybe a mandatory system. This is a permanently voluntary system at the federal level.”

Just because the federal government isn’t mandating a tracking system doesn’t mean others won’t make it mandatory.

“Right now with our export markets, like the Japanese markets, they’re wanting age and source for beef,” Silcox says. “To do that, we’re going to have to identify and track animals. The program might develop slower than if it were mandatory, but as we move into the future, more of those in the meat industry will want source verification on where they’re getting their products.”