Protecting Access to Our Food Supply
The National Animal Identification System (NAIS) is a program developed by agri-business and technology companies in the 1980s and 1990s. In 2002, an industry trade organization, the National Institute for Animal Agriculture (NIAA), took the plan to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), which has been working on it ever since.
The NAIS applies to everyone who owns even one livestock animal, including a chicken, horse, cow, sheep, goat, pig or bison. It would require each person to: (1) register their property; (2) individually identify each animal, in most cases with electronic identification; and (3) report “events” to a government-accessible database within 24 hours. The NAIS has the potential to drive many farmers out of business, due to government intrusion and the practical burdens that would be imposed. For WAPF-oriented consumers, this means increased cost and reduced availability of healthy, local foods. Both farmers and consumers must speak out to stop this program.
The last few months have seen a number of developments in the fight against NAIS: the NIAA’s annual conference, panels at other conferences (including the Weston A. Price Foundation conference), and a new document issued by the USDA. With each event or development, three issues predominate: whether NAIS is mandatory or voluntary, what are the expected benefits and what are the costs.
Mandatory or Voluntary?
On November 22, USDA published a new plan entitled National Animal Identification System (NAIS): A User Guide and Additional Information Resources. You can find it online at http://animalid.aphis.usda.gov/nais/naislibrary/userguide.shtml. The User Guide was clearly written in response to the grassroots criticism of the NAIS. Unfortunately, when one cuts through the bureaucratese, it appears that the USDA has not changed much, if any, of the substance of the NAIS.
The USDA’s new User Guide states repeatedly that the NAIS is voluntary at the federal level. Before pointing out all of the holes in this claim, it’s worth acknowledging that this at least represents an improvement. Many states have claimed that they “must” implement the NAIS because it is a “federal mandate”–essentially, they need to do it before the feds implement the program. Pro-NAIS forces now have lost that argument. It is now absolutely clear that the NAIS is not a federal mandate and that the state legislators and agencies need to take responsibility for their own actions.
But despite repeating ad nauseum that NAIS is voluntary at the federal level, USDA notes that it has authority to make the NAIS mandatory if it decides to (page 4). The same people who tried to make NAIS mandatory for several years now want us to trust them to believe that they have changed their minds and that NAIS is, and will remain, a voluntary program–unless they change their minds again. Perhaps more importantly, even if USDA never adopts regulations making the NAIS mandatory at the federal level, it can still effectively establish a mandatory program. USDA can, and still is, encouraging and funding mandatory programs at the state level. The User Guide allows states to impose mandatory animal identification and premises registration programs. USDA Secretary Johanns has stated that funding mandatory state programs does not conflict with a “voluntary” federal program.
The same day that USDA released its new User Guide, it also announced the availability of over $14 million in funds for states and Indian tribes to implement NAIS. The Work Plan for applicants reiterates USDA’s goal of “full participation by 2009”–in other words, the registration of every single person who owns even one head of livestock and the identification of hundreds of millions of animals. The USDA will withhold part of the funds until the state shows that it has reached specified results.
At the state level, we have seen a variety of responses to this federal pressure. Some states, such as Wisconsin and Indiana, have adopted mandatory regulations under a state-level NAIS statute. Other states are using existing programs to force people to comply with NAIS; for example, New York has rolled the information from the scrapie program into the national NAIS database. And yet other states have developed so-called voluntary programs, without going through the normal rulemaking procedures, that involve various coercive methods, such as telling people that they will not be able to participate in events or sell at sales barns if they don’t register, linking farm assistance programs to registration, etc.
Michigan provides a particularly instructive example about the realities of the NAIS program. Michigan is using its tuberculosis program to require the tagging of all cattle with Radio Frequency Identification Devices by March 2007. At the NIAA Conference, a representative for the Michigan program urged state officials to follow their example and implement mandatory programs, as the best (or only) way to reach the USDA’s goals for the NAIS. We do not have any protection against mandatory or coercive programs until both Congress and state legislatures adopt legislation reining in the agencies.
The Basis and the Benefits
Along with reassuring statements about the voluntary nature of the NAIS, the User Guide claims that there will be many benefits to the program for everyone, ranging from animal health to the livestock market. Nowhere does the User Guide provide any hard facts or even theoretical models to support its claim.
The stated purpose behind NAIS is international trade and consumer confidence. At the NIAA conference, USDA Secretary Johanns stated that he became convinced that animal identification was needed while on a trade mission to Japan. Speaker after speaker at the conference focused on the supposed need for NAIS to improve international trade. No one addressed the fact that the U.S. imports three to eight times as much beef as it exports. No one addressed the fact that farmers who direct-market their products are not affected by the international market. No one discussed alternatives to NAIS, such as testing all exported cattle for BSE. And no one discussed the ethics problems of imposing a program on every animal owner in order to benefit a handful of meat packing companies.
Rather, the industry and government officials keep trying to sell the NAIS as an animal health program. One would expect that a disease control program would be designed based on scientific studies and epidemiological models addressing such issues as high-risk versus low-risk situations, the impact the program would have on disease, and comparisons to alternative approaches. None of these appear to exist for the NAIS.
At the NIAA conference, I asked Neil Hammerschmidt, the USDA official in charge of implementing the NAIS, to provide the scientific basis for the design of the NAIS. His response was that he was in charge of the practical implementation of NAIS and was the wrong person to ask for the scientific underpinning. In other words, the government official in charge of the program does not have a grasp of the science that supposedly supports the design of that very program! He recommended I speak with Steve Weber in USDA’s Center for Epidemiology and Animal Health. Weber stated that he knew of only one specific study (which he co-authored) that supported the design of NAIS. He said that the design of the NAIS was based on a variety of studies, along with actions other countries have taken. He promised to email me the citation for his article, and ask around to see whether other people in the USDA knew of other specific studies. I have never received any information from him.
I have also spoken about this issue with Dr. Wiemers, the head vet for USDA on NAIS, and with multiple industry representatives. Each conversation has provided a central message: “trust the experts.” Even if one were inclined to do so, the lack of any scientific support for their program destroys their credibility. And the pro-NAIS forces appear oblivious to the concept that a farmer might have a better grasp of what is needed for animal health than a desk jockey with a degree.
The Farm and Ranch Freedom Alliance has filed a Freedom of Information Act request on this issue. If and when we receive a response from the government, we’ll provide an update in Wise Traditions.
What are the Costs?
Many people would object to the NAIS even if it imposed no monetary costs, because of the government intrusion into people’s lives and businesses. And it’s obvious that the NAIS will also impose significant tangible costs.
In the latest User Guide, USDA purports to provide an estimate of the costs. But they seem to have simply pulled numbers out of thin air. As just one example, according to USDA, a horse owner would pay “just a few dollars” for a microchip. But even for those implanting the chips themselves, just the microchip and syringe costs around $18. With a vet’s assistance, the cost can be anywhere from $35 to $70. Those quotes do not include the cost of hauling the horse to the vet, or paying the barn-visit fee. Fees for other animals may differ, of course, but the cost of electronic tagging is not cheap for any species.
USDA also fails to include the costs of RFID readers, computers or other means required for reporting to the NAIS database, and the untold hours of labor involved with tagging animals, record keeping and reporting. Estimates from the Australian Beef Association place the total cost of tagging and tracking at $37 to $40 per animal, on average. A British parliamentary report estimated the costs for the British system at $69 per head. Since people who own one or just a few animals usually pay more than large producers, because of economies of scale, these averages understate the probable cost for most individuals.
Interestingly, I presented these numbers at a panel discussion on the NAIS at the Carolina Farm Stewardship Conference. After the panel discussion, Neil Hammerschmidt and both state vets (North and South Carolina) quietly cornered me to try to convince me to stop talking about these numbers. Of all of the challenges I raised to the NAIS, this one seemed to bother them the most. They claim that the numbers are wrong and we wouldn’t see those costs in the U.S. Yet when I asked them to show me any analysis they had done to support their claim that the NAIS would not cost this much, they couldn’t.
Industry claims that RFID tags will be sold for $2.75, and that that will include “lifetime reporting.” Based on the costs reported for existing programs in Australia and Britain, this claim is difficult to believe. A conversation with one of the board members of the U.S. Animal Identification Organization (USAIO) cleared up the confusion. USAIO was created in 2006 by Farm Bureau, National Cattlemens Association, and others, to manage the “industry-led animal movement database.” Apparently, USAIO’s plan is to develop contracts with slaughterhouses and sales barns to fund part of the cost of the databases. So, instead of paying for reports directly, animal owners will pay indirectly every time they take an animal for processing or sale. And whatever shortfall is not covered by the levies on the tags and services will presumably be made up in our tax dollars.
USDA repeatedly says that competition in the market will keep reporting fees down for animal owners. However, the User Guide does not say how these costs will be controlled or minimized. The technology companies and industrial-agriculture associations have played a key role in developing the plans for the NAIS; they will undoubtedly work to maximize their profits from it, which will not keep costs down for farmers.
These are just specific examples of an overarching problem: the USDA has no idea what it is talking about when it comes to either the costs or the benefits of NAIS. The User Guide even admits this: “USDA plans to have a cost-benefit analysis conducted that will help us more precisely forecast the potential economic benefits of NAIS.” Even though they have spent years and tens of millions of dollars developing NAIS, USDA has never conducted a cost-benefit analysis to see whether this thing makes sense or not.
What You Can Do About NAIS
The government and industry officials have spent over a decade developing their plans for NAIS. The grassroots movement opposing NAIS just started to gain momentum over the last year, and has a long way to go–most US citizens still don’t even know NAIS exists. If we want to stop it, we have to do more!
Writing your state legislators and Congressmen is a great first step. You can multiply your effectiveness by helping to build a bigger grassroots movement. Hand copies of this article or other information about NAIS to your neighbors. Put stacks of flyers at your local feed stores and auction barns. Help to organize a local meeting and bring in a speaker. You can download materials and information at both www.libertyark.net and www.farmandranchfreedom.org. If you don’t have internet access, you can call the Farm and Ranch Freedom Alliance at 1-866-687-6452. The Weston A. Price Foundation can help by sending out action alerts to members in states where hearings or votes on NAIS are taking place.
Other Regulatory Issues
Registration under the Bioterrorism Act of 2002: The Bioterrorism Act of 2002 requires that “domestic and foreign facilities that manufacture, process, pack or hold food for human or animal consumption” in the United States must register with FDA by the end of 2006. The statute exempts both “farms” and “private residences.” Unfortunately, the FDA adopted rather unclear regulations and their help desk–run by an independent contractor–told people that they had to register their farms if they sold anything off of it, even hay! At the conference, Leslye Fraser, Director of the FDA Office of Regulations and Policy, stated that sales directly from the farm do not trigger the registration requirement. FDA’s guidance document can be found at http://www.cfsan.fda.gov/~dms/ffregui4.html
Food and Drug Administration’s priorities: Michael Landa, Deputy Director for Regulatory Affairs, spoke about current events at the FDA. A great deal of his talk centered around the FDA’s need for funding. Disparate interests, including both consumer groups and pharmaceutical interests, have formed the “Coalition for a Stronger FDA” to try to increase FDA’s resources. See http://www.fdacoalition.org/ for more information on that effort. Despite the FDA’s lack of resources, they place both raw milk and egg safety high on their list of priorities, above shellfish safety, foodborne viruses, allergens, and chemical contaminants. FDA does not appear to be paying any attention at all to biotech foods; in fact, Dr. Landa labeled them as merely a “perception” issue! FDA is considering new regulations addressing egg safety and labeling, so we need to be vigilant to ensure that they do not place onerous burdens on pastured egg farmers.
Uniformity for Food Act: The Uniformity for Food Act, HR 4167 and S3128, would radically change the traditional allocation of authority over food safety among the local, state, and federal authorities. The National Association of State Departments of Agriculture has been actively opposing the Act. The bill would pre-empt all local and state regulation of food. The meaning of the provision is not completely clear, but it could pose a threat to state laws allowing for the sale of raw milk or local laws that provide greater protection against genetically modified foods. The bill was passed in the House without a hearing; the Senate held a hearing in July, but did not invite several key players in the debate. The bill is currently still in committee and is not expected to pass before Congress recesses. We will monitor the next Congress to see whether it is introduced again.
A Review of the 29th Annual National Food Policy Conference
By Matthew Rales
In October, 2006, I attended the 29th Annual National Food Policy Conference on behalf of the Weston A. Price Foundation. The conference provided an eye-opening and sobering look at the current state of commodity food and agriculture in America. The Washington D.C. pressroom, where the conference was held, was filled with academic nutritionists, FDA officials and corporate food public relations representatives from all over the country.
These leaders in industry presented diverse views on the topic of food policy, yet their general understanding of food as it relates to human health was startlingly poor. Among the common suggestions were to limit caloric intake and follow the guidelines presented by the USDA. The culminating message was that virtually no food is safe unless it is inspected by a standardized government program, based on the assumption that the only food available is corporate imitation food. According to the majority of the speakers, alternatives do not exist, are unsafe or are not widely available enough to make a difference.
The lesson of the two-day gathering: how to pick “sensible” imitation food in the grocery store aisle. The “sensible solution,” as these food officials like to euphemistically call their recommendations to consumers, was indeed varied. For a Kraft public relations representative, the “sensible solution” was a block of imitation cheese with a gram less trans fat than the original block of imitation cheese and a gram of added fiber in the form of dextrose. For a political representative from Alaska working on school lunch programs it is a granola bar instead of a coke. And for an NYU professor of nutrition, food studies and public health it is fruits and vegetables, regardless of their origin or the growing practices used to produce them.
Consider the sponsors of the conference: Cargill, General Mills, Kraft Foods and Pioneer Hi-Bred International. It comes as no surprise, then, that breakfast cereals, granola bars, fake cheese and genetic engineering were all espoused as the saviors of the dietary and agricultural problems in America. Even nanotechnology, genomics and biomarkers were suggested by one FDA official as the pending solutions to outbreaks like the recent E. coli menace in bagged spinach (this was breaking news on the second day of the conference). There was no mention of simple solutions like buying your spinach from a nearby farmer you can trust.
The Center for Science in the Public Interest seemed to have a representative on nearly every panel discussion. They called for lawsuits against breakfast cereal marketing firms that target children and complained that we in America do not have the “luxury” of a National Animal Identification System. Of course, no mention of nutrients in food by these folks either.
As for real foods like butter, eggs and whole milk, these are not a part of the food policy vocabulary. They are no longer the topic of debate because it is simply assumed that these foods are unhealthy. Raw milk of course is just dangerous–no further discussion permitted. If the broad-spectrum, standardized food policy that these folks want is to be effective in improving the health of America’s children, shouldn’t it focus on counting nutrients instead of calories? The advantages of real food become apparent with real science. But as long as the system continues to operate under a regime of fabricated science, we will continue to be indoctrinated with fabricated food.
Matthew Rales is a recent graduate of Middlebury College in Vermont with a BA in Environmental Studies and Literature. He recently completed an internship with the Weston A. Price Foundation and is currently working as an intern at Joel Salatin’s grass-based Polyface Farm.
This article appeared in Wise Traditions in Food, Farming and the Healing Arts, the quarterly magazine of the Weston A. Price Foundation, Winter 2006.🖨️ Print post