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National Equine Identification System

(Editor’s note: These articles have been posted with permission from the American Horse Council.)

Many in the horse industry are just learning of the national animal identification plan and they are naturally concerned about it. Unfortunately, some of the information that is being circulated about the concept and its potential impact on the horse industry is misunderstood or inaccurate.

Various sectors of American agriculture have been debating the issues surrounding the institution of a national animal identification system for over a decade. The primary purpose for a national ID system is to address animal health emergencies. The original proponents of a national ID system for livestock were the National Institute for Animal Agriculture, the U.S. Animal Health Association and the livestock industry itself.

The diagnosis of a BSE-positive cow in Washington State showed how important an accurate, rapid, individual animal identification system can be to trace the origin and movement of diseased and/or exposed animals and to contain, control and eradicate the disease in order to mitigate the health and economic effects.

That BSE occurrence crystallized the support for a national ID system and prompted the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to embrace the concept fully. On April 27, 2004, Secretary of Agriculture Ann M. Veneman expressed the Department’s full support and announced the framework for implementation of a National Animal Identification System (NAIS) designed to identify any agricultural premise exposed to an animal disease so that it could be quickly contained and eradicated.

The USDA is moving forward with the formulation of a National Animal Identification System. Congress supports the initiative and several bills have been introduced calling for implementation of the system as soon as possible.

The NAIS is intended to establish a standardized, alpha-numeric system for animal identification. The purpose of such a system is to permit “trace back” within 48 hours of a confirmed diagnosis of an animal disease. Ensuring animal health in the US, and thereby the ability to market animals, is the primary reason the animal agriculture industry is looking at a national, standardized identification system.

The NAIS proposes standards that can apply to all species, including horses, although equines are not the principal focus now. In fact, the NAIS does not include a section on equine identification at this time, although a place has been reserved for standards of equine identification.

The initial focus of the plan is on food livestock, such as cattle, swine and sheep. Nonetheless, the expectation is that other livestock groups, such as the horse industry, will embrace the concept and develop their own national ID plans under the parameters of the NAIS.

The NAIS would require the documentation of the following information:

*An identification number for each “premises” involved
*An identification number for each horse that is part of the system
*Location, time and date stamp so horses could be “traced” in the event of a major disease outbreak

The concept of a national ID system for horses has been discussed at equine industry meetings for the last several years. In fall of 2003, the American Horse Council organized a task force that included nearly thirty national equine organizations. Its purpose was to evaluate the concept of a national ID system and to determine if the horse industry could develop standards for equine identification that would benefit the industry and be compatible with the plans being considered.

This task force has now been recognized as the Equine Species Working Group (ESWG) by the USDA. It is chaired by Dan Fick, Executive Vice-President of The Jockey Club, Dr. Marvin Beeman of Littleton, Colo., past President of the American Association of Equine Practitioners, and Amy Mann, Director of Health and Regulatory Affairs at the AHC.

Through the ESWG, the horse industry is evaluating the overall plan, its benefits and costs, and determining how the industry can develop standards for equine identification that would fit into the system and help the industry.

The ESWG has held several meetings and numerous conference calls. It has formed subcommittees to review in detail the many issues that still need to be thought through fully. The subcommittees formed and their purpose include:

*Identification and Technology Subcommittee to review what identification methods are appropriate and the technology available
*Premises Identification and Responsibilities Subcommittee to review what premises should be included in any equine tracking system and what responsibilities the premise managers should have
*Movement Recording Subcommittee to recommend what movements of horses should be tracked and how
*Communications Subcommittee to keep the industry informed of developments regarding the NAIS through media and educational materials on a national plan for the equine industry
*Pilot Project Subcommittee to plan and draft an application when appropriate to USDA for federal funds to test the initial effectiveness of an identification system for the horse industry.

It is important that the ESWG, as representatives of the horse industry, be directly involved in preparing for this system and ensuring that if it becomes mandatory the horse industry can operate within its guidelines. If it does not do it, others will do it for the industry.

All aspects of the issues of equine identification in disease management must be studied to protect the horses and allow commerce to continue and the markets to remain open in the event of a disease outbreak.
Many issues have been addressed and others must still be addressed by the horse industry, including:

•The benefits of national equine identification system for the horse industry
•What horses must be included in the system
•What premises must be included based upon the activities, disease threat and management practices in the horse industry
•What movements, activities or events require the recording and/or reporting of data
•What is the most effective means of identification that is affordable and efficient
•What is the implementation timetable, including the schedule of when the plan might be phased-in and realistic dates when the plan may be in place.
•Cost sharing and who pays for what
•Protecting any information collected and restricting its access only to those authorities that need it for disease control.

The ESWG welcomes all input from horse owners and stakeholders in the industry as it determines the special needs of the horse industry in connection with the NAIS should it become mandatory.

Micro Management

by Tom LaMarra

As Congress considers legislation that would establish the national Animal Identification System, horse industry official are seeking to drive home the message that microchips are simply a means of identifying equines—not an avenue for the federal government to invade privacy.

During the April 4 American Horse Council national issues forum in Washington, D.C., officials indicated there is concern in the industry about the government’s reason for requiring microchips in horses. They joked about the “black helicopter” conspiracy theory whereby stealth agents would spy on residents and relay information to the government.

“The chips do not hold GPS transmitters,” said Dr. Billy Smith, executive director of information technology for the American Quarter Horse Association. “They can’t see if your horse is being fed properly. You have to be right on a horse to detect a chip, which doesn’t transmit cryptic information to the federal government.

“This is a tool with a very small amount of information. I think of it as an electronic barcode on your horse.”

The AQHA is a member of the Equine Species Working Group, which is charged with developing recommendations for the United States Department of Agriculture. The group met April 2 in Washington, D.C., to receive an update on the program and develop options for consideration by the United States Department of Agriculture, which will implement the NAIS.

“It’s a top-of-mind issue with Congress, but it’s moving slower than predicted,” Dan Fick, executive director of The Jockey Club and chairman of the working group, said a day after the meeting.

The NAIS is to be phased in over several years, with a goal of 2009 for mandatory participation. Fick noted there has been a major change in that the USDA has decided to farm out the database. Only a handful of companies, however, could provide the service given the stringent security requirements.

“If the specifications are as rigid as expected, not a lot of players can get into the game,” said Amy Mann, director of health and regulatory affairs for the AHC and co-chair of the working group. “It basically would be a bomb-proof facility.”

Fick said there are three key components of the system: an identification number for a premises; an ID number for animals via microchips; and the actual movement of animals. Fick said the horse industry believes that if a horse isn’t going to be moved, it shouldn’t need an ID number.

The microchips are about the size of a grain of rice. Smith said the working group has developed criteria for the chips and where they must be placed on horses.

Charles Hulsey, executive director of the Tennessee Walking Horse Breeders’ and Exhibitors’ Association, said he saw first-hand the value of microchips in Louisiana, where their use already is mandatory. He said the tracking of horses was much easier following Hurricane Katrina last year.

Though the NAIS is inevitable given government efforts to combat bioterrorism, its implementation remains a question. However, AHC president Jay Hickey said it’s imperative to be pro-active rather than risk having onerous regulations imposed on the horse industry. “We are a long way from a system becoming voluntary, much less mandatory,” he said.

Dr. Jim Morehead of the American Association of Equine Practitioners said the ID system is necessary in what he called a world with “relatively sophisticated psychos” who could use diseases for terrorism. He also said the horse industry must realize the importance of the effort and be more honest and sensible in its dealings. Morehead cited the 2001 mare reproductive loss syndrome outbreak in Central Kentucky as an example. He said it took all of about five days for panic to set in even though it wasn’t known that MRLS wasn’t an infectious disease.

“We were sending horses out of (Central Kentucky) like there was no tomorrow,” said Morehead. “A lot of the horses didn’t even have (Coggins papers), but they couldn’t wait. If it had been an infectious disease, we would have been in trouble. There was panic.”

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