Industry Debates Animal Identification System's Impact on Horses

Despite considerable opposition from groups who say the program is unworkable or an invasion of privacy, the National Animal Identification System (NAIS) is making inexorable inroads into the lives of horse owners.

Jim Morehead, DVM, president of the Equine Species Working Group (ESWG), an independent body composed of representatives from over 30 American equine industry groups who have come together to guide the implementation of NAIS, said the group is meeting this week in Washington to update everyone on the progress of the program.

"We recognize that NAIS is not a popular thing with the American public, but it is being brought in for all species of livestock and the horse industry is going to have go along for the ride," Morehead said. "The goal of the ESWG is to make it as painless, applicable, and reasonable as possible.

"Three things need to happen as NAIS goes forward," he continued. "First, we need to establish a high compliance rate for premises ID. After that we need a high compliance rate on horse ID. The USDA would like to have more than 70% of the horses that are transported microchipped and identified.

"And third, we need to educate the public about livestock identification and dispel some of the fears," he said.

Morehead emphasized that NAIS remains strictly voluntary, and that there is currently no deadline for completion of the program, which was launched in 2003. But at least two states, Michigan and Wisconsin, have now made the identification of premises housing livestock compulsory, and a raft of lawsuits are now surfacing, alleging that the USDA is violating the Fourth and Fifth Amendments of the Constitution.

Attorneys for the Farm-to-Consumer Legal Defense Fund have announced their intention to sue both USDA and the Michigan Department of Agriculture, and there have also been reports that some states are using coercive tactics to induce livestock owners to "voluntarily" register their premises, such as denying them state services or membership in 4-H programs.

"In theory, NAIS is great. In practice, the program still has some significant holes in it." -- Debi Metcalfe, founder and president of Stolen Horse
In addition, agricultural journalist Mary-Louise Zanoni is petitioning the government for full disclosure under the Freedom of Information Act. She alleges that many livestock owners have discovered they are in the NAIS database despite having refused to register, with some remaining on record even after repeated requests to have their information removed.

Debi Metcalfe, founder and president of Stolen Horse International, an organization that helps horse owners locate and bring home their stolen animals, said she supports the idea of horse identification for many reasons--not just for biosecurity, but as part of disaster planning and as a theft deterrent.

"But we also believe that the type of ID you use should be a choice," she said.

"We encourage microchipping, but microchipping your horse and getting on board with NAIS are not one and the same," Metcalfe said. "There are still some standardization issues with the types of chips and the scanner frequencies USDA recommends.

"If you don't have the manpower, the system isn't going to work," Metcalfe said. "And I'm not sure American horse owners care if we're compliant with what's happening in Europe, when the vast majority of our horses will never leave the United States. This program needs to work within the U.S.

"In theory, NAIS is great," she summarized. "In practice, the program still has some significant holes in it."

About the Author

Karen Briggs

Karen Briggs is the author of six books, including the recently updated Understanding Equine Nutrition as well as Understanding The Pony, both published by Eclipse Press. She's written a few thousand articles on subjects ranging from guttural pouch infections to how to compost your manure. She is also a Canadian certified riding coach, an equine nutritionist, and works in media relations for the harness racing industry. She lives with her band of off-the-track Thoroughbreds on a farm near Guelph, Ontario, and dabbles in eventing.

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