On April 15, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack held a roundtable discussion on the controversial National Animal Identification System (NAIS). He had invited 29 organizations, and I had the opportunity to represent the Western Organization of Resource Councils (WORC).
Secretary Vilsack opened by explaining that he was getting pressure from Congress, which is considering, apparently, cutting off the funding for NAIS unless the livestock industry works out a consensus to have better voluntary participation. I probably was not the only one in the room wondering: “And this is a bad thing?” He went on to mention that NAIS is becoming a requirement for international trade since all of our major competitors have NAIS type traceability systems.
I challenged this international market requirement, pointing out that last fall, when I delivered my calves, the buyer wanted source and age identification, which I gladly and easily provided. For the relatively small percentage of beef that we export, compared to our domestic market, a private system between buyers and sellers can work very well. Besides, I pointed out that country-of-origin labeling (COOL) is a marketing program and USDA had to be dragged kicking and screaming to the table. So why is USDA so obsessed with NAIS?
If NAIS is not a marketing program, what is it? Some people seem to think that it has something to do with food safety, which is pure nonsense. In the mid 1990’s USDA replaced meat inspectors with the Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point system (HACCP). In doing so, they did us a great disservice – HACCP – USDA’s gift that keeps on giving salmonella. If people are serious about food safety, then rescind HACCP.
USDA does not have a good record on homeland security either, which is the third rational advanced for NAIS. It was USDA that let bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) and tuberculosis (TB) into the country. Homeland security comes from adequate inspections and controls on our borders, not by burdening producers in the heartland with an expensive, intrusive, and cumbersome animal ID system.
Finally, is NAIS a disease control system? It probably could be in some specific circumstances, and the American Veterinary Medical Association certainly thinks it is the answer to all problems. Their statement was by far most in favor of NAIS.
Many of the other attendees were on both sides of the fence. NCBA seemed to say that they opposed NAIS as long as it was a government controlled program, leaving the impression that if NCBA were to run it, they would be happily in favor of a mandatory program. In contrast, R-CALF and U.S. Cattlemen, along with WORC, were clear about their opposition to a mandatory program. The Public Lands Council also opposed it on the grounds that Premise ID in the West, where we have livestock going every which way for summer pasture, NAIS compliance would be very complicated. The American Sheep Growers also opposed, pointing out that the scrapie tag system was working very well as it is.
I think that we were pretty effective in pointing out that this country had controlled many diseases without NAIS. After all, in Montana, we have had an animal ID system – brands– in place for 125 years. I pointedly reminded Secretary Vilsack that USDA has not demonstrated to the western ranchers that NAIS adds value to what we have been doing all along.
I further pointed out that USDA does not have much credibility out West. Given its record with COOL, meat inspection, BSE, TB, and lack of enforcement of the Packers and Stockyards Act, there was very little reason to trust USDA over this NAIS program.
I also reminded Secretary Vilsack that WORC had sent him a letter on April 8th with a long list of questions about NAIS and how it would function. A timely response to that letter would be very beneficial and would clarify a lot, not only for the affected livestock owners, but also for USDA because the department does not seem that to have really thought this through.
After listening to the other groups represented (poultry, pork, horses, milk, elk, bison, monopoly packers, producers of natural foods, stockyards, etc.), it is clear that there is a complex mixture of needs and concerns. Something like NAIS might make sense for some species, some industry segments, and some states that do not have brand laws. However, I remain convinced that a single, overarching national system is too expensive, too intrusive, and unworkable.
Gilles Stockton is a rancher from Grass Range, Mont., member of WORC’s Livestock Committee, and an international consultant on livestock production and marketing.
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