National ID System Necessary, Officials Say

The National Animal Identification System, still a work in progress but headed for mandatory implementation, could have been useful in tracking and containing strangles in Florida and Kentucky, a veterinarian with the United States Department of Agriculture said.

Strangles, a contagious bacterial disease caused by Streptococcus equi, spread from Kentucky to Florida earlier this year. It led to the quarantine of certain barns at training centers, and forced some racetracks to limit access by shippers.

The NAIS is designed to strengthen animal disease control efforts. It's funded by state and federal government, as well as the animal industry. The horse industry has a voice through the USDA Equine Species Working Group, whose co-chairman is Dan Fick, executive director of The Jockey Club.

Officials provided an update on the NAIS, which will impact all horse owners, April 18 during the American Horse Council National Issues Forum in Washington, D.C. Federal funds in particular have been made available because of biosecurity concerns.

"If we have a major disease outbreak tomorrow, we're not ready," said Dr. Venaye Reece, area emergency coordinator for the USDA Animal & Plant Health Inspection Service in South Carolina. "And the world is watching."

Reece noted the strangles outbreak in South Florida had the potential to impact thousands of horses at training centers and racetracks. She said horse industry officials handled the situation professionally, though the tracing of horses was done through security logs.

That would continue in the future, but under the NAIS, horses would carry microchips, and the information would be stored in a centralized database.

"They feel they have the situation pretty much under control," Reece said, "but I've spoken with state and federal officials in both states, and they believe they could have handled the situation better and with more confidence with a federal animal identification program."

Reece said there are more than 1,400 species of infectious agents, and about half are "zoonotic"--able to be transferred from animal to human. She said the paper records now used for the tracing of animals leave something to be desired.

"With paper records, we can usually get there if we work long enough, but speed is of the essence," Reece said. "If we lose that time, we may lose control. We need immediate real-time identification."

Neil Hammerschmidt, coordinator of the NAIS for the USDA Animal Plant & Health Inspection Service, said the goal is to identify property and animals within 48 hours of a disease outbreak. Today, that process may take months, he said.

"If we want a timely response, we have to change our infrastructure," Hammerschmidt said. "There are many issues of concern worldwide, and the U.S. is somewhat unique compared with other parts of the world. Many European countries have had a national identification program for years."

Through April 15, about 56,000 premises had received a federal identification number. Animals such as horses will receive identification numbers as well through microchip technology. The NAIS will be phased in over the next several years, with 2009 the goal for mandatory implementation.

Fick said the horse racing and breeding industry would like the future system to be compatible with international identification systems and be used in conjunction with existing systems such as lip tattoos, branding, markings, photographs, DNA typing, and breed registration.

"One thing we don't want to have happen is the chip becomes the only method of identifying horses," Fick said. "You can counterfeit chips. It's technology."

Fick said California and Kentucky are considering plans to require microchips in racehorses. He said regulators are concerned about horses leaving facilities to receive illegal treatments and not being properly identified when them come and go.