The United States Department of Agriculture announced last week that its controversial National Animal Identification System (NAIS) has gone the way of the dodo. In its place is planned a watered down version that ultimately will shift development and management of a nationwide animal identification plan into the hands of the individual states, Indian tribes, and producers. When finally implemented, the new program, according to the USDA website, will: "Only apply to animals moved in interstate commerce; Be administered by the States and Tribal Nations to provide more flexibility; Encourage the use of lower-cost technology; and Be implemented transparently through federal regulations and the full rulemaking process." In other words, the USDA is passing the administrative buck on the animal identification issue to someone else. You can hardly blame them. 

Whether fragmenting a needed national plan makes sense and ever will prove workable are open questions. On the other hand, the old NAIS was not working very well, either. One hundred per cent participation is necessary for a tracking program like NAIS to work, and fewer than half the animal producers in the United States signed on to the voluntary program.

NAIS had its genesis when a Holstein cow infected with bovine spongiform encephalopathy ("BSE," or "mad cow disease") was among a group of animals shipped across the border from Canada to the state of Washington. After several weeks of diligent work, the USDA called a halt to the investigation, despite reports that some 50 of the 80 or so cows transported with the infected animal had not been located. Several of the missing animals apparently were at high risk for BSE, because they had eaten the same feed as the known infected cow.

Officials in Japan and some other major foreign importers were not amused. They called a halt to the sale of American beef, and "traceability" of animals became a priority for the United States government. The goal was to identify every animal in the country with a unique number that could be stored in a database. If an animal became ill, the exposure of other potentially infected animals could be easily tracked. Initiated as a voluntary program and directed mainly at food animal producers, NAIS nevertheless drew the ire of many horse owners.

Some of the arguments leveled against NAIS were sound, such as the added expense and red tape the program would impose; others were silly, like the conspiracy theory claim that the United States government was planning to use microchips implanted in animals for clandestine spy satellite tracking of animals and their owners. Whether the government could do this, even if it wanted to, is no sure thing. Keep in mind that this is the same government that developed a multi-million dollar navigation system for predator drone aircraft that could be hacked by militants in Iraq using a piece of $26 software available on the Internet.

Or maybe the tracking fears were well-founded rather than paranoid. The Georgia state senate last week passed a bill prohibiting the implantation of a microchip in a person’s brain without that individual’s permission.