Protecting Your Right to Farm: The Fight Over The National Animal Identification System Continues
Both the proponents and the opponents of the National Animal Identification System (NAIS) have started the year with a rush. As proposed by USDA in 2005, the NAIS would require anyone who owns even one livestock animal to register their property, tag each animal (in most cases using electronic forms of ID), and report movements to the government, including private sales, regional shows, and the death of the animal. In 2006, in response to the public outcry, the USDA stated that the program would be voluntary “at the federal level,” and that implementation would be done by the states. Since then, both implementation and the efforts to stop implementation have resulted in a patchwork of events at the federal and state levels.
USDA Issues Memos and Proposes Federal Rule to Mandate Premises Registration
The USDA’s interpretation of “voluntary” has been misleading, to say the least. The agency has repeatedly encouraged state efforts that either mandate NAIS or use coercive tactics to force people into the program, such as by linking it to 4H participation, disaster relief, or existing programs (brand registration, Coggins testing, or tuberculosis tagging have been some of the most common).
Last September, the USDA took another step along its path of claiming that the program is voluntary while simultaneously forcing people into it. The agency issued a memo to its Veterinary Services Management Team that required NAIS premises registration for various disease program activities. The memo included activities such as vaccinations, testing and applying official ear tags, for programs for every livestock species, for diseases ranging from brucellosis to scrapie to equine infectious anemia. Under this memo, people who refused to have their farms registered would be registered against their will and given a special code to indicate their refusal. Animal owners who took government-required steps, such as testing and vaccinating their animals, would find themselves enrolled in the NAIS premises registration database with or without their consent.
After the memo was publicized by the Farm and Ranch Freedom Alliance and Liberty Ark Coalition, the USDA received numerous protests. It then issued another memo. On the first page, the December memo states that it revokes the September memo, leading to some reports that the USDA had cancelled mandatory premises registration. But on page 4 of the memo, the USDA included language which still provided that anyone who had an activity performed on their property under a federal disease control program would be assigned a NAIS premises identification number. The memo was much more ambiguous than the original September memo, but the basic impact appeared unchanged.
Presumably in response to the questions raised about its legal authority to take this step through a memo, the USDA proposed a new NAIS rule on January 13. The draft rule would make portions of the NAIS mandatory for thousands of people in every state. Anyone who participates in federal disease control programs for cattle, sheep, goats or swine will have their premises registered. The NAIS Premises Identification Number (PIN) will become the only form of premises identification acceptable for USDA animal health purposes, with no opt-out provision. The proposed rule would also limit official Animal Identification Numbers to the NAIS-compliant 840-numbering system, laying the groundwork for future regulations that would limit people’s options on the types of tags they could use.
The comment period for the proposed rule closes March 16, 2009. At the time this article went to press, thousands of people had already submitted comments opposing the proposed rule, as well as NAIS in general. Since the rule was proposed before the new Administration started, Secretary Vilsack’s response to the outpouring of opposition will set the stage for what happens next.
Congress Gets Into the Act
Each year for the last five years, Congress has appropriated money to fund NAIS implementation. In the Omnibus Appropriations bill for Fiscal Year 2009, which will fund the entire federal government for the rest of the year, the House included a provision for $14.5 million in NAIS funding, which is about half of what USDA had requested. But Rep. Obey (D-WI), who chairs the House Appropriations Committee, included some very damaging statements in the record about timelines and performance goals for NAIS. Although these are not law, because they are not in the bill, they provide a lot of impetus to USDA’s implementation of NAIS. As this article went to print, the Senate was debating the Omnibus Appropriations bill.
The action in Congress this year will extend far past the Appropriations bill. On March 11, the House Subcommittee on Livestock, Dairy and Poultry will hold a hearing on “animal identification programs.” As of the week before the hearing, the Chair of the subcommittee still has not released the list of organizations that have been invited to testify, but it is safe to assume that it will include all of the usual suspects from Big Ag, including the technology companies and database managers who stand to make a fortune from NAIS. One anti-NAIS group has been invited to testify, and WAPF is working with other organizations to mobilize the grassroots response.
There are also five food safety bills that have been filed already, and more are expected. All five bills include “traceability” provisions, whether for animals, produce, or both. It’s a confusing situation, because NAIS is not a food safety program. The NAIS tracking ends at the slaughterhouse, while most foodborne illnesses are due to contamination that occurs at the slaughterhouse, food processing or handling facilities, or at homes and restaurants. So NAIS provides little or no relevant information in the event of a foodborne illness outbreak.
Food Traceability Proposals
And whether it involves meat or produce, the value of traceability in foodborne illness outbreaks is limited by the realities of such illnesses. The typical incubation period for foodborne illnesses is several days, so the main difficulty in tracking outbreaks comes from people’s inability to accurately remember what they ate several days before. Yet, unfortunately, many in Congress do not understand the facts underlying foodborne illnesses (or choose to ignore them), and tracking animals continues to appear in these bills.
Senate Bill 425, introduced by Sherrod Brown (D-OH) would require FDA to establish a traceability system “for all stages of manufacturing, processing, packaging, and distribution of food.” Since meat does not fall within FDA’s jurisdiction, this bill would not mandate NAIS, but would establish a NAIS-type system for other foods. For meat, the bill gives USDA mandatory recall authority. Senate Bill 510, the FDA Food Safety Modernization Act, is the most recent of the food safety bills. Introduced by Senator Durbin (D-IL), it also focuses on foods within FDA’s jurisdiction and includes specific requirements for pilot projects on traceback programs and regulations.
HR 814, introduced by Congresswoman Diana DeGette (D-CO), would mandate traceability for all poultry and livestock—specifically including cattle, sheep, swine, goats, horses, mules and other equines presented for slaughter for human food purposes—where the animals or the resulting food are shipped interstate. Although the bill does not use the term “National Animal Identification System,” it clearly envisions a NAIS-type program in its provision that the tracking system must allow traceback to any premises at which an animal was held at any time before slaughter. The bill could also effectively mandate NAIS for many people who never ship animals interstate, because the Secretary is authorized to prohibit entry into USDA-inspected slaughterhouses for animals not identified under the system. So any farmer that uses a USDA-inspected slaughterhouse could be required to be in the program, even if his or her animals are raised and marketed entirely within the state.
HR 759, the FDA Globalization Act of 2009, was introduced by Congressman Dingell (D-MI). It applies to FDA-regulated products, not USDA meat inspection. The bill would impose regulations on production and harvesting methods for fruits and vegetables, and would require farms to register under the Bioterrorism Act of 2002. It also mandates electronic record keeping and standardized lot numbers. HR 759 also calls for “registration fees” paid by food establishments to generate revenue for FDA.
HR 875, the Food Safety Modernization Act, is sponsored by Congresswoman Rosa DeLauro (D-CT). It establishes a new agency, the Food Safety Administration, within the Department of Health and Human Services. The new agency would take over the food safety responsibilities currently held by FDA, but would not affect USDA’s authority to inspect meat and poultry. The bill does cover meats that are not currently inspected by USDA, such as bison, deer, and elk. HB 875 contains some good provisions, such as increased standards for imported foods and increased inspections of food processing plants. But these positive provisions come with many extremely damaging provisions. The bill requires a traceback system for food and gives the new agency authority to inspect farms, ranches, orchards, and vineyards. HB 875 calls for “good practice standards,” which is usually a euphemism for very restrictive requirements based on industrial farming practices, such as not allowing animals to be raised on the same farm as produce.
None of the bills recognize the fundamental differences in food safety between the industrial, centralized food system and the sustainable, local food system. To one degree or another, they all attempt to impose expensive, burdensome requirements on all farmers, regardless of the scale of operation or the management methods. True food safety reform needs to recognize that foods such as grass-fed beef, lamb and poultry, processed in local, smallscale operations, are not the same as—and should not be regulated the same as—feedlot meats processed at massive facilities and shipped all over the country. Nor should a bag of spinach from a local CSA be subject to the same sort of regulations as a mega-spinach farm in California that ships its product all over the country.
State Bills and Next Steps
Because of USDA’s method of implementing NAIS, in 2007 and 2008 four states adopted laws barring their state agencies from implementing a mandatory NAIS. Arizona was the first, followed by Nebraska, Kentucky, and Missouri. In 2009, multiple state bills that would limit NAIS to a voluntary program had been filed. All of the bills include protections against coercion being used to force people into the program. The bills include: Arkansas HB 1046, Montana HB 551 and HB 592, South Dakota HB 1224, Texas SB 682, Washington SB 5956/ HB 2086, and Wyoming HB 263. At the time this article went to press, only the Texas and Montana bills were still alive.
Weston A Price Foundation farmers and their consumers are at the forefront of this fight because we know the value of good food. NAIS creates incentives for confined animal feeding operations, combined with particularly heavy burdens for those raising animals on pastures where tags are often lost on fences and brush. It’s time to speak up to retain your right to farm and protect the availability of grass-fed meats, eggs and milk!
We need to educate legislators in every state, and in Congress, about the important benefits of grass-based livestock operations and the differences between them and the industrial agriculture system. One of the best ways to do this is to meet with your legislator in person to talk about the concept of real food safety from local, sustainable farms. A meeting or phone call with the staffer who handles agricultural issues is also a great option for establishing a relationship that can lead to better representation of your interests in the state legislature and at the federal level.
For the latest information and action alerts, sign up for free email alerts at www.FarmAndRanchFreedom.org. The website also has materials that you are free to download to share with your neighbors, customers, and local livestock-related businesses. For more information and help with state bills and materials for educating legislators, email Judith@FarmAndRanchFreedom.org or call 512-243-9404.
This article appeared in Wise Traditions in Food, Farming and the Healing Arts, the quarterly journal of the Weston A. Price Foundation, Spring 2009.