Tracked: The NAIS Controversy

By Maria Magaldi

Introduction: My name is Maria Magaldi. I’m a junior in high school from Connecticut. This year my U.S. history teacher gave my class a chance to pick a topic for our research papers as long as we used primary sources. I keep a small farm of Nigerian Dwarf goats and I was curious about a program another goat keeper said she was “forced into” called NAIS. I decided to research it and educate myself as it could potentially affect me and my goats in the future. As I researched and discovered more and more about the National Animal Identification System, I became furious and decided, after I wrote my paper, that I wanted to share what I found with the world.

It is the 21st century and the U.S. is one of the major world powers. Having used Roosevelt’s “big stick” to control Cuba, the Philippines and the surrounding U.S. territories, the government is now turning to its own citizens to wield a new stick—a microchip smaller than a penny. With the approval of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), these microchips—marketed mainly by the Digital Angel Company—are being injected into animals across America. The purpose is to further implement the USDA’s brainchild, the National Animal Identification System (NAIS). This program is being promoted as a way to enable the government to track the movements of animals in order to more quickly eradicate a disease. Although NAIS could potentially help officials contain a widespread livestock epidemic, it is nevertheless unconstitutional as its operation infringes on animal owners’ constitutional rights and its possible mandatory establishment would be medically and ethically harmful.

According to the USDA’s NAIS website, NAIS will “help us [USDA] protect U.S. livestock and poultry from disease and spread, maintain consumer confidence in our food supply, and retain access to domestic and foreign markets.” Animals included in the plan are: cattle, bison, poultry, swine, sheep, goats, cervids (e.g., deer and elk), equines (horses), and camelids (e.g., camels, dromedaries, llamas, alpacas). There are three steps to NAIS: (1) Registering premises and obtaining a premise ID number, (2) Identifying animals; (3) Tracking/tracing the animals on a database. Registering a premise requires filling out a form provided by the USDA including one’s address, phone number(s), and operation type. In return, one receives a small card with a Premise Identification Number (PIN), a unique seven digit code containing both letters and numbers. So far 459,859 out of an estimated total of 1,438,280 premises have been registered with the USDA—that’s 32%. Step two: identifying animals is when each individual animal is registered with the USDA and given a 15 digit Animal Identification Number (AIN). The animal’s background is recorded onto a database. USDA states that officials can access this information in “the case of an animal health event.” Step three: tracking animals on a database is the final step of NAIS. A person can choose if they want information on the movement of their animals—recorded on a tracking database—to be available to the state or privately owned industry groups. All three steps will allow the government to have control in the case of a disease outbreak. (NAIS)

Companies and associations have aligned themselves with the USDA and the NAIS program. In particular, meat tycoons Tyson, Purdue, and Cargill are readily agreeing to the USDA’s plans. All three are on the USDA’s 2008 list of approved plants to receive slaughtered animals. On the Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS) Business Plan to Advance NAIS, management from U.S. official plants met with the USDA to discuss premise ID and to receive other information about NAIS. In addition, Digital Angel, the company responsible for producing the microchips used in the animals is directly aligned with NAIS. Digital Angel is listed in the 2007 FDA Listing of Acceptable U.S. Industries along with its sister company, VeriChip which provides microchips for human use. The Digital Angel site states that the company has “manufactured RFID microchips for millions of pets throughout the world, providing them with unalterable and permanent identification should they become lost or stolen… [and] pioneered RFID solutions to help farmers, ranchers, sale barns and other livestock producers to identify and track animals in efforts to ensure the health and safety of the world’s food supply” (Digital Angel). RFID is radio frequency identification technology—a microchip or a device containing a microchip. With the support of mass companies such as these and a standard microchipping device, the USDA can more easily implement the NAIS plan.

However, the majority of farms and animal owners in the U.S. do not support the NAIS. These people are the small farmers, the 4-Hers, the FFA members; the backyard animal owners who only have small herds of animals. And yet, these people are feeling the majority of the pressure of NAIS and the government. Hundreds of anti-NAIS websites and newsletters bear headlines demanding rights for the small farmer. In Bonnie Jameson’s article published in the May/ June 2007 edition of the Dairy Goat Journal, she wrote how her daughter received an Oklahoma NAIS Premise ID card when she registered for a local FFA livestock show. Zealous farmer, Lynn Miller wrote a passionate article for the Small Farmer’s Journal describing the potential problems that farmers will encounter when the NAIS program becomes mandatory. He believes that the numbers of small farmers will decline and be driven out by government red tape and fines until all farming and food production is left up to the major industries. Essentially, it is not NAIS’ goal of eradicating disease that is sparking controversy within farming communities, but the actions one needs to take while complying with the program and the possible consequences of the actions that are the roots of the debate.

Animal owners are wary of the fact that the government will store their personal information including their address, full name, phone number, and type of farm on a national database if they fill out the NAIS premise form. The USDA says that it will need this information in an emergency. In a report to the Congressional Requesters of the GAO (Government Accountability Office) on homeland security and agroterrorism attacks, the USDA testifies that in the case of a disease outbreak that has been confirmed by USDA technicians, “the affected herd and all cattle, sheep, goats, swine, and susceptible wildlife—infected or not—within a minimum 10 kilometer zone around the affected farm would be killed…slaughtered and disposed of by incineration, burial, or rendering,” (Homeland Security 31). So if the USDA had access to premise information during a disease outbreak and knew that a farmer lived within the 10 kilometers, the farmer’s livestock would be wiped out even if the herd was operating on a closed basis. Later, the government could find out by a second test that the medical result was false positive and that there never was a disease rampant in the area.

There is also the unconvincing claim made by the USDA that NAIS is a voluntary operation. Nevertheless, states have the power to decide if they want NAIS to be mandatory. The NAIS official User Guide states “Under our current authorities, USDA could make the NAIS mandatory, but we are choosing not to do so…participation in every component of NAIS is voluntary at the federal level” (NAIS User Guide). However, farmers and rural landowners have been receiving yearly envelops from the Agriculture Identification Survey (AIS) which clearly state on the front that “your response is required by law”. It also states that by neglecting to fill out the information, one will be fined $100. In Mary Zanoni’s article in the 2006 March/April edition of Dairy Goat Journal, she states that although the AIS denied that they were connected to NAIS, the USDA claims that the AIS envelopes and information were “done through a contract with the USDA National Agricultural Statistics Service” (Zanoni 2006 Agricultural Identification System 10). Then there is the term dubbed “critical mass” by the USDA. Critical mass is NAIS’ benchmark, when the USDA will evaluate the progress of NAIS and decide whether there is enough participation. It is NAIS’ hope to have 70% livestock participation by the year 2009 (NAIS). It is implied that if the critical mass is not reached, the program will become either mandatory or at least more strongly enforced. “U.S. Department of Agriculture materials say that the goal is full, mandatory participation by 2009” (Boyer ¶1). Forced participation and an added cost burden is enough to make American farmers cringe.

On the NAIS national website, the USDA alleges that registering for a premise is free. However, the USDA confesses that individual states “may choose to keep premises registration free or not” (NAIS User Guide 20). The other two steps of NAIS and their included costs should be considered. The second NAIS step “animal identification” requires a form of identification such as a tag or microchip with the AID code on it. According to the NAIS User Guide, a simple tag is usually $1 per animal, radio frequency tags are between $2-3 and implantation of a microchip (for a horse) is between $15-20. This price does not include the veterinary visit. Typically veterinary visits range from $50-200 depending on the number of animals and the hours. Just say that a farmer has a herd of 100 cattle. He decides to pay for the microchip in order to participate in the NAIS tracking program. If his vet bills him $150 for the visit and $20 per microchip implantation, he will spend $2,150 which is more than most small farmers can afford. This price does not include the price of upkeep. Compliance with the last step of animal tracing has a hefty price tag. In several of the animal tracking database sites, one must be a member to be able to log in and view the prices of the systems available. The USDA says that costs will vary depending on the services. They too do not give a direct price but instead hope that “competitive forces in the free market will keep costs down” (NAIS User Guide 9). Not only is the price dissuading farmers, but the consistent reporting of animal movements once registered in the tracking database is outraging them as well. NAIS’ goal is that farmers report within a 24 hour timeframe any movements of animals according to the relative level of importance of the movement. A fair, sale, market, or auction are all considered high levels; while trail rides and local events are of low level exposure to disease. (NAIS User Guide)

Many believe that NAIS is a violation of the Constitution—in particular the First, Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments. The Amish feel threatened by NAIS and believe that their right of “freedom of religion” given by the First Amendment is being taken away from them and they fear that the program will force them to choose between obeying their religion and complying with government laws. Many are selling their livestock in order to avoid microchipping their animals. The Amish say that a passage in the book of Revelation in the Bible alludes to “the mark of the beast” which they believe is the microchip and the implementation of a mandatory microchipping program. “He causes all, both small and great, rich and poor, free and slave, to receive a mark on their right hand or on their foreheads, and that no one may buy or sell except one who has the mark or the name of the beast, or the number of his name.” Revelation 13:16-17.

The Fourth Amendment secures privacy and protects citizens from unwanted and unwarranted searches. If the government did make NAIS mandatory, people owning unregistered livestock could be either fined or the animals could be instantly killed if the government deemed it necessary or if they felt that the animals’ health was suspicious. The Fourteenth Amendment of the Constitution states “nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property.” Animals are a person’s property just the same as, say, a house or land. Making a person give up this privilege or forcing a person to disobey their religion is a complete disregard of the Constitutional amendments.

Not only are there circulating concerns on a moral basis, but physical health concerns as well. VeriChip, the human RFID (radio frequency identification device) is similar if not identical to the RFID Digital Angel used in livestock. VeriChip’s founder was in fact Digital Angel. In a letter from the FDA to the VeriChip Company, the FDA responds to VeriChip’s request to use its microchip in hospitals as identification. The FDA also lists the potential health risks related to the transponder “adverse tissue reaction; migration of implanted transponder; compromised information security; failure of implanted transponder; failure of inserter; failure of electronic scanner; electromagnetic interference; electrical hazards; magnetic resonance imaging incompatibility; and needle stick.” (Evaluation¶8). These are the same issues that the livestock RFID would have. Electromagnetic interference and MRI incompatibility has been further researched by the FDA. During an MRI, a radio frequency field (such as one emitted by the RFID) could potentially cause burns on the patient as it generates electromagnetic currents resulting in the heating of the device. In addition, exposed to an MRI the electromagnetic fields conflicting with each other could cause malfunctions in the RFID. (A Primer on Medical Device Interaction) In the “Adverse Event Report” section of the FDA website there are two publications. In both, the women had VeriChip implants. The first woman found the microchip caused her extreme discomfort and she had to have a fluoroscopy to find the microchip before she could have it surgically removed. The second woman was volunteering in a government study to test the effects of radiation (magnetic and microwave) on the device. In the report, the woman’s hypertension worsened and she began to have serious cardiac problems. She wrote “The government states that this is nonlethal but I beg to differ. I would like…full investigation and stop to this study until further data can be gathered to support the harmful effects…” (Adverse Event Report VeriChip).

A study based in France using the results of three different studies found that microchip-associated tumors from livestock RFIDs were “4.1% with 52 animals bearing a microchip associated tumour out of 1260”. (Subcutaneous Microchip Associated Tumours) In a report published by the VeriChip Corporation “Eighteen of 117 mice (10%) were diagnosed with an undifferentiated histologically malignant sarcoma arising at the transponders site, the earliest at 15 weeks after implantation”(Tissue Reactions 2). This number is extravagant and oncology experts are agreeing. Director of the Center for Sarcoma and Bone Oncology at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston, Dr. Demetri felt that the numbers of sarcomas developing in mice from the microchips posed high risks if the same microchips were injected in humans and other animals. (Lewan ¶27)

There is a video advertisement on the Digital Angel website that shows a woman and her dog reunited because of a microchip that was implanted in the dog. However there is another story, similar to this one but lacking the happy ever after ending that Digital Angel seems to promise. In the summer of 2004, Lisa Massey of Virginia lost her eight month old pit bull terrier, Hadden, but she felt assured because she knew that her dog had a microchip. A shelter in Stafford County found Hadden and scanned him for a microchip, but the scanner was unable to find a microchip. After waiting 10 days without hearing from an owner, Hadden was euthanized. Thirty minutes later, Massey called the shelter and asked if her dog was there. Hadden was scanned again and a message popped up on the scanner screen. The message read “Microchip found.”

This devastating experience was due to the incompatibility of the scanner and the lack of radio frequency waves emitted by the microchip. Often scanners do not work with all types of microchips as there is no universal microchip or scanner. The USDA does not have the power to enforce a universal microchip system where the microchip matches the scanner. (Nolen 2) This could pose a serious problem if NAIS was made mandatory. If an animal did have a microchip, but the scanner could not read the chip number, the owner could still be fined for defying government regulations.

Due to the “success” of livestock microchip implantations, microchips are starting to be used in humans. They are being injected into bar attendees such as the visitors who go to the Baja Bar in Barcelona, Spain. There the microchip records tabs and money owed. Microchips are being used to track hospital patients and people who have Alzheimer’s and other mentally degenerative disorders. Even average citizens are volunteering to get microchips implanted under their skin. But the problems still remain.

Ten years from now the farming industry could be entirely dominated by the government acting through the USDA and mass corporations. If Orwell’s 1984 becomes a reality, NAIS will be remembered as a national shame. After all, even the Secretary of Agriculture, Ed Schafer referred to the USDA as “Big Brother” (Transcript 8). So please, sign petitions and call and write to government officials. Today the first step in the plan and with this secrecy…who knows what tomorrow will be?


“Advancing Animal Disease Traceability.” USDA. Nov. 2007. 27 Apr. 2008.

“Adverse Event Report.” Center for Devices and Radiological Health. 20 Apr. 2007. U.S. Food and Drug Administration. 27 Apr. 2008.

“Adverse Event Report: VeriChip Corporation Verimed Patient Identificator VeriChip Implant.” Center For Devices and Radiological Health. 10 Dec. 2007. U.S. Food and Drug Administration. 27 Apr. 2008.

Allan, Carrie. “Navigating the Microchip Maze.” Nov.-Dec. 2003. U.S. Humane Society. 20 Apr. 2008.

“AMS Business Plan to Advance NAIS.” Agricultural Marketing Service. 14 Apr. 2008. USDA. 27 Apr. 2008.

Appell, David. “Getting Under Your Skin.” Scientific American. Jan. 2003. National Association of Science Writers. 11 Apr. 2008.

“A Primer on Medical Device Interactions with Magnetic Resonance Systems.” FDA. 7 Feb. 1997. 27 Apr. 2008.

Boyer, Brian. “State Feels the Heat, Drops ID Requirements for Livestock Exhibitors—for Now.” Medill Reports, Chicago. 15 Apr. 2008. 20 Apr. 2008.

“Class II Special Controls Guidance Document: Implantable Radiofrequency Transponder System for Patient Identification and Health Information.” FDA. 10 Dec. 2004. 27 Apr. 2008.

Curnow, Robyn. “The Price to Pay for VIP Status.” CNN. 6 Oct. 2004. 27 Apr. 2008.

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