Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack killed the $142 million National Animal Identification System (NAIS), and any hope it might contribute to food safety, last week.

At a meeting of state agriculture commissioners, Vilsack said the NAIS as conceived after the discovery of Mad Cow disease in the United States in 2003 had proven to be vastly unpopular with America’s farmers and ranchers.

It will be replaced with the “Animal Disease Traceability Framework.”  A fact sheet on the new program published by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) says the new program “only focuses on animal health and aims to assist USDA in quickly finding out where diseased animals have been and what other animals they might come into contact with.  Animal disease traceability isn’t a food safety program.”

USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) will be in charge of the new animal disease traceability program with its responsibility ending at slaughter.  USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) is supposed to be able to trace processed meat back to its sources.

Animals that show up at the slaughterhouse showing signs of disease will supposedly be tracked back to their original herd.

USDA says it spent $120 million of the funds allocated to NAIS, but was only able to get 36 percent of producers to participate.  With NAIS failing as he took over, Vilsack had USDA hold 15 “listening sessions” around the country last year.

More than eight of ten people participating in the heavily attended sessions opposed NAIS.

Vilsack is promising the new program will be more limited and more flexible, relying on the states and Indian tribes.  It will be limited to animals that cross state lines, and therefore enter interstate commerce.   NAIS would have applied to every animal in the country, and many said that exceeded USDA’s constitutional authority.

John Clifford, USDA’s deputy administrator at APHIS, said it would build on animal identification systems already in place to fight brucellosis, tuberculosis and other diseases with simple ear tags.

Many in rural America feared a system based on implants and reading radio frequencies would cost many dollars per animal for the fancy technology with no discernable benefit.

The death of NAIS is a big win for Montana-based R-CALF.  Bill Bullard, chief executive officer for R-CALF, said he was very pleased to have USDA reverting back to a system based on the one used for brucellosis.

R-CALF stands for the Ranchers-Cattlemen Action Legal Fund-United Stockgrowers of America.

Carol Tucker Foreman, a food safety expert at the Consumer Federation of America, expressed doubts about a “state by state” program.  She agreed NAIS was not working and needed to be changed.

NAIS was the Bush Administration’s response to the 2003 discovery in Yakima County, Washington of a cow from Canada that was infected with Bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) or Mad Cow Disease.

BSE is a fatal, neurodegenerative disease that causes a spongy degeneration in the brain and spinal cords of cattle. It has a long incubation period, usually lasting about four years.   NAIS grew out of a fear that a mandatory program was needed to track animal histories over their lifetime.

It was unpopular from the start, and the Bush-era USDA made it voluntary and used cash incentives to farm and ranch groups to gain enlistments.