Back in 2004, USDA began to implement the National Animal Identification System (NAIS). According to NAIS, this program is:
“a cooperative State-Federal-industry partnership to standardize and expand animal identification programs and practices to all livestock species and poultry. NAIS is being developed through the integration of three components—premises identification, animal identification, and animal tracking. The long-term goal of the NAIS is to provide animal health officials with the capability to identify all livestock and premises that have had direct contact with a disease of concern within 48 hours after discovery.”
In other words, the idea is to protect us from things like BSE (“mad cow” disease) and avian influenza. While these diseases are crucial concerns, there are reasons for worry about the technology itself and its potential applications.
The public needs to know what’s going on so it can address this issue. NAIS is currently a voluntary program, however, the draft plan speaks of mandatory requirements for 2008. Regulations have not yet been developed. Recommendations will be heard by the NAIS Subcommittee and the Secretary’s Advisory Committee on Foreign Animal and Poultry Diseases. If the process is anything like the development of the National Organic Program, it will be lengthy, there will be time for public comment, and many opinions will be heard and incorporated into the final product.
In April of 2006, NAIS spoke of an “Implementation Plan” that referenced “a contingency option for regulations if participation levels did not reach adequate levels…” That plan has “…been discarded to reflect the policy and position of USDA.”
Despite this disclaimer, USDA wants our people (not just farmers) involved in this program. In June of 2005, Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns announced that USDA would accept funding applications from state and tribal governments to continue participation with NAIS to the tune of approximately $14.3 million.
In all 50 states and two territories, “premises registration” has been implemented. Several tribal governments are also participating. Premise registration is currently free. It may sound like a good idea, but it has caused some controversy.
What does all this mean? The intent is to be able to identify the place where an animal lives as well as where it moves by registering it with an animal identification number (AIN) that will be used on AIN tags. A group or lot identification number can be used as animals move through the production chain as a group or lot of animals. But how foolproof is the system, and how is it actually done?
According to the NAIS guidelines, animal identification may include, but does not require at this time, the placement of a microchip into each animal. Many farmers, upon hearing about this, are appalled—especially organic farmers. There has never been a case of mad cow or avian influenza on an organic farm. Organic livestock producers are already required to keep detailed records to track their animals’ sources, feed, health, and movement from location to location. The record keeping can be staggering—photos with names, tattoos, ear tags, computer databases or handwritten records are all part of the picture. Newer technology offers a supposedly simpler solution—the “microchip.”
A microchip is about the size of a grain of rice. It is a radio-frequency device (abbreviated RFID), enveloped in a small glass capsule that is placed into the animal, usually in the neck. When I first heard of this technology, I talked to a stockholder of Digital Angel, which makes the chips. At the time I had recently spoken to some organic farmers in Austin who were very upset with participation by Texas in the NAIS program. From the stockholder down to the smallest farm, from organic dairy and beef farmers to Amish poultry producers, I got the same response: The implications of this program are confusing and scary—and microchipping the most worrisome of all.
Pets are not included in the NAIS program, though there has been the development of a market for such applications. There is also discussion of using this technology to “identify” and track children or prisoners. Some day we could become walking credit or debit cards, using the chips to make purchases. We could have implanted “ID cards” so we could easily board airplanes or enter our workplaces. In today’s world, where what once was considered science fiction has quickly become science fact, it seems plausible that some day—sooner than we think—microchipping may become mandatory for all of us.
Disease control? People certainly transmit plenty of diseases. NAIS guidance states: “Diseases can spread through a variety of sources—human contact, tainted food or water supplies, insects, airborne viruses, or migratory birds—and the number of animals, their source(s), the location of the event, and the health status and certification of animals all influence the potential for disease spread.” There could be many reasons to market the expansion for use of these devices and they are already amongst us, in our food supply and other places.
A microchip holds data—in the case of NAIS, the purpose is to track animal movements and locations. Health records and a great deal of other information can also be stored. In the case of NAIS, the data, in a microchip or otherwise, would be “held in multiple, secure databases managed by private organizations and state animal health authorities.” Many people have problems with the idea that so much information could be held in a master database and how easy it might be for someone to “hack into” and manipulate that data. No technology is foolproof.
Data will need to be entered by a producer. Data entry mistakes can be made, and data can be changed by anyone smart enough to buy and learn to use the technology or to hack into a computer system.
How secure are we with our personal data? We already have web scams and credit card and identity theft all around us. The potential for abuse is only as limited as the human mind, which created the system. Our cell phone locates us, but what if it gets lost or stolen? Someone else can use it, and if the phone is with them while something happens and gets tracked on its global positioning satellite (GPS), then for all practical purposes it is the owner who was involved, whether concerning how many hours are used or a crime.
Don’t get me wrong. I believe strongly in a system to protect us and our livestock from disease. I think the web, credit cards, identification, and cell phones are great things. I use them all the time. But we need to think very hard about what we create with NAIS—about the implications of master databases and the use of technology that may not answer all of the questions that really need to be asked if it is to address its stated purpose of protecting us.
What could go wrong? The recent backlash of press against organics from the E. coli outbreak shows us that there are folks out there who love to beat up the organic ag community and small-scale farms. Could it be possible that someone out there might want to find a way to affect the alternative and organic businesses by breaking into their information and changing some data? I may sound paranoid, but we all know it could happen. To think we are so “secure” that we can protect data from mistakes or alterations is naïve. Databases are corruptible, and if everything is based on what the databases say, then we need to be very secure about who has access to them.
Other concerns include where the chip might end up. It is possible for it to “migrate?” If so, where does it end up in our food supply? It’s pretty small and probably is placed in a location that is not going to end up being a steak or roast, but all parts of animals are used in some part of the food chain. Could an animal’s chip end up in you—whole or “processed?” Could it become bologna, hot dogs, or pet food? What if you consume one? Could a human then become tracked as livestock? What happens if one is in you and you don’t know it? What would an MRI do to one?
One of the most provoking arguments against NAIS and the use of databases and computers to track people and animals is freedom of religion. NAIS states in its Q&A document: “As we make progress with developing NAIS, USDA is sensitive to individuals’ religious beliefs. On this topic, many individuals have provided comments to USDA and expressed concerns about the use of certain technologies, such as computers. USDA recognizes these concerns. We are respectful of these beliefs and are committed to ensuring that workable options are available to religious communities.”
Just because the USDA says it’s voluntary and only intended for livestock, can we trust that to be our future? This isn’t just about NAIS—it is about the state and private business gaining the authority to enter our lives in a bigger way, we may realize. Is “Big Brother” watching us? Starting in 2007, states will implement a new requirement that all new driver’s licenses will have an embedded microchip for tracking purposes.
In New York, a bill was recently introduced with the following language: “Any person who owns a dog shall ensure that by the age of four months such dog is implanted with a microchip for the purposes of identification including medical history and needs of the dog. This would include the owner’s contact information and dog’s medical history. A registry of dogs shall be created at the time of dog licensing.”
As far back as March of 2000, Julie Foster of WorldNetDaily wrote about microchips being adapted for use in humans. Applied Digital Solutions acquired the patent rights to the digital transceiver named “Digital Angel®.” The device sends and receives data and can be continuously tracked by GPS technology. When implanted in someone’s body, it is powered by the movement of muscles and can be activated either by the “wearer” or by a monitoring facility. Who will be monitoring the wearer? What monitoring rights will the “monitoring facility” have?” How easily can someone activate, deactivate, or change data?
Dr. Peter Zhou, the chief scientist for development of the implant and president of DigitalAngel.net, Inc,, told WorldNetDaily that in the future computers may be programmed to operate only with such user identification. These verification devices require a live fingerprint scan and are already being sold by some computer manufacturers. Identity theft made simple. Want to hack into someone’s computer? All you need is his or her fingerprint (or finger!)—easy to steal. The chips also have the ability to monitor heart rate, blood pressure, and other vital functions. The patent states, “Ideally, the device will bring peace of mind and an increased quality of life for those who use it, and for their families, loved ones, and associates who depend on them critically.”
The government is interested in this technology for more than livestock applications. According to Zhou, the U.S. Department of Defense inquired through a contractor about the possibility that American soldiers might wear the implant so their locations and health conditions could be monitored.
Clearly this could become part of our future. As with all things that discriminating consumers care about, it will be important for them to stay informed and educated on how to influence the requirements and applications of such technology. Opinions are very divided on this issue. The subject is broad, with many potential implications. As we attempt to “protect” ourselves we may endanger ourselves even more if we do not make informed and thoughtful choices. This issue is important and demands public attention.
When making public comment: Please keep in mind that microchipping is not the only method of animal identification and that all comments on the subject are welcome—especially species-specific comments from stakeholders in livestock production, small or large.
What to do
Contact the NAIS Web page www.usda.gov/nais, and/or email to animalidcomments@ aphis.usda.gov. Other resources include an organization called No/NAIS, which can be reached at www.NoNAIS.org. Much information is available on the web.
Cissy Bowman is an organic certifier and manages Hoosier Organic Marketing Education, a nonprofit organization (317-539-4317 or firstname.lastname@example.org).