Take a Number

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Jay Hickey, president of the American Horse Council, made a presentation to the U.S. Equestrian Federation’s board of directors. The message he delivered was direct and simple: The National Animal Identification System (NAIS) is inevitable, and everyone better be ready for it.

What is the NAIS?

The NAIS is a U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) program intended to identify all agriculture animals and track them as they come into contact with, or are intermixed with, animals other than herdmates from their premises or origin. It will be used in all states and operate under national standards. USDA’s long-term goal is to establish a system that can identify all premises and animals that have had direct contact with a foreign animal disease or a domestic disease of concern within 48 hours of discovery.

The outbreak of Mad Cow and other diseases makes it clear why a national animal identification system is needed to help protect American animal agriculture from foreign or domestic disease threats. But the process of identifying horses and their premises is fraught with issues unique to the equine industry.

The Equine Species Working Group (ESWG), comprising more than thirty equine associations, state veterinarians and other service providers to the horse industry, is working with the USDA by evaluating the overall NAIS, its potential benefits and costs to the horse industry, and determining how the industry can develop standards for equine identification that would fit into the system.

Its initial recommendations to the USDA point out that horses are long-lived and often very valuable. They move intrastate, interstate and internationally from their “home base” to other locations. In addition, tens of thousands of horse shows and other competitions occur throughout the year and there are nearly two hundred race tracks in the U.S. Hundreds of thousands of Americans ride horses every week, sometimes close to home and sometimes in other states.

For its part, the USDA says it understands that there is no “one-size-fits-all” identification technology and some technologies will work better for some species than for others. Rather than focusing on a specific technology, the USDA is focusing on the design of the identification data system—what information should be collected and when it should be collected and reported. Once the system is designed, the market will determine which technologies to use.

Why Horse Identification?

Reliable horse identification becomes especially critical in emergency situations. Lessons from recent natural disasters demonstrate that lack of permanent identification leads to theft and confusion over ownership as horses stray, are evacuated or are otherwise separated from their owners. Horse identification is also important during outbreaks of serious infectious disease, as officials seek to find which horses traveled where, as well as to identify horses that may have been exposed to the disease.

Under the current USDA plan, horses that never leave a premise do not need to be identified. The USDA, however, is encouraging owners to identify all of their animals, since diseases like West Nile virus and equine infectious anemia may be spread whether an animal leaves or not.

Who Will ID the Animals?

Ultimately, identifying animals will be the responsibility of the “premises of birth” animal owners. For owners who lack equipment for individual identification, approved “tagging stations” will be available. The station would charge a fee to apply the ID device and report the information to a central repository. The stations could be located, for example, at a veterinary clinic.

Timeline

The timeline for equines has not yet been established. The ESWG has recommended that any national or state equine identification program should be voluntary in the initial implementation period to insure the opportunity to properly test the components of the system. It further recommends that mandatory equine identification should not be implemented before 2010 unless events necessitate earlier compliance.

Costs

Currently, the costs are unknown. To ensure that the horse owners and industry stakeholders do not unduly bear the costs of the development and implementation of a national equine identification program, the ESWG is advocating that the USDA provide adequate funding in 2005-2006 for equine field trials recommended by ESWG, and adequate funding in 2006-2007 for assistance to begin implementation of the program.

Summary

The ESWG produced a nine-page memo of sixteen recommendations for USDA officials. These recommendations for identifying and tracking the country’s 6.9 million horses include: making compliance voluntary initially; using existing equine identification programs (the USEF and breed registries, for example); completing testing of all components before the system becomes mandatory, probably not before 2010; all data to remain confidential; federal and state governments to foot the bill.

Hickey summed it up by stating, “This is going to be a long process, a process the whole horse industry has to be involved in. And we want you to understand that it’s coming.”

For more information, check out the Department of Agriculture’s website at: www.usda.gov/nais. Or, the American Horse Council site at www.horsecouncil.org.