October 2007

Microchipping Linked to Cancer

Mircochipping linked to cancer
Photo by Hill Country Photography
Microchipping Linked to Cancer
By Judith McGeary

Horse owners recently received a rude awakening.  The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) announced that it will release a Business Plan to implement the National Animal Identification System (NAIS) sometime in September, and that horses are in the top tier for implementing the NAIS.  Moreover, recently publicized studies indicate that implanted microchips, such as would be used as part of NAIS, could lead to increased rates of cancer in animals.  Horse owners can no longer live under the illusion that they will escape the heavy burdens of this government plan, unless we stop the entire program.

What is the National Animal Identification System (NAIS)?
For those who have missed previous articles about NAIS, it is a government-industry plan that was developed in the 1990s and early 2000’s.  USDA published draft plans for NAIS in the Federal Register in 2005.  While later documents have provided minor modifications to the original plans, the basic system remains the same.  The USDA’s documents provide for a three-step system:

1.    Property registration: Every person who owns or manages property with even one horse or other livestock animal will be forced to register their home in a state and federal database under a 7-digit “premises ID number.”  Covered animals include horses, chickens, cows, pigs, sheep, goats, turkey, deer, elk, bison, llamas, and alpacas.

2.    Animal identification: When the animal leaves its birthplace, it will have to be assigned a 15-digit ID number, also to be kept in a database.  For horses, the Equine Species Working Group has recommended that every horse be identified with microchips. 

3.    Animal tracking: The owner will be required to report to the government within 24 hours of “events.”  The original list of events included: every time a tag is applied, a tag is lost or replaced, an animal is killed or dies, or an animal is missing. The latest USDA document states that moving an animal from one pasture to another on the same property, or taking a trail ride with one other person, are not reportable events.  Other events are to be divided into “low priority” and “high priority” events for reporting, depending on state regulations.

USDA’s latest document states that NAIS is “voluntary at the federal level,” meaning that the agency is not proposing regulations to make it mandatory nationwide.  At the same time, USDA is funding state NAIS programs.  That funding is contingent on states achieving specific performance goals.  In other words, if a state does not get enough people to register their property and animals, the state will stop receiving the federal funding.

How Could NAIS Actually Happen?
In response to the federal funding and industry pressure, several states have moved ahead to implement NAIS.  Here in Texas, the Legislature gave the Texas Animal Health Commission (TAHC) authority to make NAIS mandatory at any time.  Although public pressure has prevented the TAHC from acting on that authority so far, there is nothing to stop the agency from implementing the entire program in the future, unless the Texas Legislature changes the law.

In Wisconsin and Indiana, property registration is already mandatory for all livestock owners.  In Michigan, property registration and electronic tagging is required for all cattle.  Other states have so-called voluntary programs, and have used a variety of coercive methods to increase participation.  For example, a woman in New York recently received a letter thanking her for registering her property with the NAIS database, even though she had never filled out any forms or agreed to register.  She has been unable to find out for certain how she was registered, but she suspects that the agency took her information from the forms she filled out for a Coggins test on her horse a few weeks before!
Having a large equine community does not protect against the imposition of NAIS.  The Kentucky Department of Agriculture has proposed regulations that would require a Certificate of Veterinary Inspection (CVI) for all movements, sales, and exhibitions, with only limited species-specific exceptions.  “Exhibition” is defined to mean a “fair, show, exposition, rodeo, competition, or trail ride.”  “Movement” is defined as “the act of moving, shipping, transporting, delivering, receiving or collecting animals by any means, method, or vehicle by any person for any purpose.”  These broad definitions mean that almost every time a horse is taken off the owners’ property, it would need a CVI. The CVI requires “official individual identification,” the name and address of the owner and the receiving location, a certification from the vet that he/she has inspected the animal, and potentially additional information (not specified in the regulations).  So, in practice, the Kentucky Department of Agriculture could easily impose the first two parts of NAIS simply as part of the CVI requirement, if it is passed. 

Focus on Horses
All of the USDA’s documents have listed horses as part of NAIS, and the Equine Species Working Group has given consistent support to the USDA’s inclusion of horses in NAIS.  Even so, many horse owners believed that horses would not be included in the NAIS because they are not food animals.  The USDA’s latest announcement put to rest any doubts that horses are part of the program.  The USDA’s soon-to-be-released Business Plan for implementing NAIS divides animals into “Tier 1” and “Tier 2” species.  Tier 1 species will be the first priority for government resources and attention to achieve NAIS implementation.  Along with the primary food animals, horses are classified as a Tier 1 species.

Horses have also been the subject of pilot projects and studies under NAIS.  Pennsylvania State University is currently conducting a pilot project to enroll 4-H students with horses in NAIS.  To participate in the project, each child has to get a premise number for the property where his or her horse is kept, have the horse microchipped, and then report each time the child takes the horse to an event that is over 50 miles away or if the event has over 10 horses from different properties.  Notably, the Pennsylvania State website reassures children that the microchip will not harm their horses, although it does not provide links to studies showing long-term safety of the microchips.  Penn State is also conducting an online survey about horse owners’ opinions on NAIS; so if you have access to the internet, tell them what you think!  Go to http://www.das.psu.edu/4h/horse/identification/
In California, government funds were used to microchip racehorses.  An official from the California Department of Food and Agriculture discussed the project at a recent industry-government conference.  InCompass Solution, a subsidiary of the Jockey Club, provided the database services for tracking for free for purposes of the study.  How much would the database tracking cost normally?  The government speaker didn’t know.  Presumably, Jockey Club subsidiary normally makes a profit on database services, creating an incentive for the Club to promote NAIS to horse owners.

New microchip concerns
The ESWG recommended that microchips be the default form of identification for horses under NAIS.  Indeed, logically, if a horse must be identified with a 15-digit individual number, there is no real choice besides microchips.  Can you imagine making a unique brand with 15 numbers for each horse?  Or having a tag hanging off your horse’s ear?
Yet newly publicized studies raise concerns about the safety of microchipping animals.  In September, the Associated Press released a story revealing studies that show microchip implants may cause dangerous cancers in animals (http://www.dailycomet.com/article/20070908/APN/709080609).  The studies indicate that RFIDs may have caused malignant, fast-growing, and lethal cancers in up to 10% of the study animals.  According to the AP report, cancer researchers contacted about the studies indicated that it is easier to inflict cancer on mice than it is in humans, but none of the researchers contacted thought that RFID should be implanted in humans until further studies are done.  If we’re not sure that microchips are safe enough for humans, do we want to use our horses as guinea pigs?

Just a few days before the AP story broke, the USDA approved a specific microchip for use in horses for the NAIS program.  The NAIS-compliant device adds another layer of technology to the previous microchips, by capping each microchip with a material to secure it in place within 24 hours of insertion into the animal’s body.  No studies have been released about the long-term health effects of this new material.  Could this material increase the risk of cancer?  Horses often live for more than 30 years.  What are the health effects over the long term?

Human and animal microchipping share not only the RFID technology, but also common corporate interests.  The microchip approved for human use is made by VeriChip, whose parent company owns a 55% interest in Digital Angel, the manufacturer of the recently approved microchip for horses.  Technology businesses have been integrally involved in the development of the NAIS.  While the USDA ignores the concerns of animal owners who will be directly impacted by NAIS, it works closely with the corporations who could potentially make millions of dollars.  As usual, following the money leads us to the real reason for the NAIS.

If people choose to microchip their horses, then they should be free to do so.  There are costs and benefits to any action, and we do many things that have unknown health effects.  The problem with NAIS is that the government may require people to microchip their horses, endangering both our civil rights and potentially our animals’ health.

What can I do?
Because so many in the horse world continue to turn a blind eye to NAIS, this article has focused on the clear evidence that show that horse owners will be subject to NAIS.  But that does not mean that NAIS is inevitable, or that people should just give up!  We have been successful in keeping the Texas Animal Health Commission from imposing NAIS requirements in this state so far.  If enough people speak up, we can stop this program nationwide. 

·The Farm and Ranch Freedom Alliance is a nonprofit dedicated to protecting the rights of farmers, ranchers, and livestock owners.  Visit our website at http://www.farmandranchfreedom.org  for more information on NAIS and to sign up for our free mailing list. 

·Contact your U.S. Representatives and Senators, telling them that Congress needs to explicitly limit USDA’s authority and to stop funding NAIS through our federal tax dollars

·Contact your state legislators and tell them that you want them to pass a bill in the next session to stop or limit NAIS in Texas.  In the last session, the Texas House passed a bill to limit NAIS to a voluntary program only, but it failed in the Senate; next time, we need enough support to make it the law!

For more information, contact the Farm and Ranch Freedom Alliance at (866) 687-6452 (toll free) or info@farmandranchfreedom.org
Judith McGeary is an attorney and small farmer in Austin, Texas, and the Executive Director of the Farm and Ranch Freedom Alliance.  She has a B.S. in Biology from Stanford University and a J.D. from The University of Texas at Austin.  She and her husband run a small grass-based farm with Quarter Horses, cattle, sheep, and heritage poultry.  For more information about NAIS and what you can do to stop it, go to www.farmandranchfreedom.org or call 1-866-687-6452. 

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