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Feds flip-flop on animal ID?

By Henry Lamb
for eco-logic/Powerhouse

June 15, 2006
Henry Lamb

For nearly four years, the U.S. Department of Agriculture has been developing a National Animal Identification System that conforms with international guidelines. The Draft Strategic Plan was issued April 25, 2005. The plan called for voluntary registration initially, to become mandatory on this timeline:

  • July 2005: All states capable of premises registration.
  • July 2005: Animal Identification Number system operational.
  • January 2008: Premises registration and identification required
  • January 2009: Reporting of defined animal movements required; entire program mandatory.

Until the release of this plan, the program had been developed in relative secrecy among federal and state bureaucrats, working with the industry giants who first proposed the program through the National Institute for Animal Agriculture. NIAA represents the biggest meat producers in the U.S., including Cargill Meat Solutions and the National Pork Producers Council, and the makers of high-tech animal-ID equipment, such as Micro Beef Technologies and Digital Angel.

The USDA reported that "in listening sessions held by the Animal and Plant Inspection Service (June-November 2004) 59 of 60 comments indicated support for NAIS." But, shortly after the plan was published in 2005, a single "listening session" was held in Texas, where more than 200 people showed up voicing strong opposition; more than 700, mostly opposing, comments were offered.

The original plan suggested a central federal database, where each premises ID would be housed, along with a registration number for every livestock animal at each premises. Any off-premises movement of any animal would have to be reported within 24 hours.

Public outrage at this plan forced the USDA to publish an amended plan in April 2006. The new version announced that the NAIS would be "voluntary," but that "if participation rates are not adequate ... procedures will be considered to require participation in certain aspects of the program."

The central database idea evolved into "cooperative agreements" with state and private "animal tracking databases," and big-bucks grants were offered to selected entities to implement these agreements. Here are just a few that are included in the current Agriculture appropriation bill (HR 5384), in addition to more than $84 million already distributed:

  • $2,000,000 for the Wisconsin Livestock Identification Consortium;
  • $600,000 for the Farm Animal Identification and Records (FAIR) program;
  • $300,000 to North Carolina's agriculture industry for rapid response capabilities;
  • $450,000 to New Mexico's Syndromic Validation Program;
  • $550,000 for Iowa State University's work regarding risk assessments.

Opposition to the program has continued to grow among animal owners across the nation, spawning several anti-NAIS groups and websites that have evolved into a national coalition dedicated to blocking a federally mandated animal identification system.

In an effort to quiet the rising opposition, the USDA has released another document, which now reverses much of what the previous USDA documents have said.

The new document says flatly that NAIS is a voluntary program, and implies that it will remain voluntary, despite years of declaring that 100 percent participation is essential for the program to be effective. The new document says that there "are no enforcement mechanisms or penalties" connected to NAIS.

Previous documents – especially in states such as Texas – that are developing "cooperative agreements" to implement NAIS, clearly announce penalties of up to $1,000 for non-compliance.

Has the USDA decided to put the dirty work of enforcement off on the states? Or, perhaps, the USDA simply means that there are no enforcement mechanisms or penalties in place, at this time.

The USDA seems to have no problem flip-flopping its position to offset the current criticism. The bottom line, of course, is that the USDA is the 800-pound gorilla that can change its mind on a whim, and impose whatever rules and regulations it wants.

Congress has not authorized any National Animal Identification System. It has funded the USDA's efforts to develop a plan, but the actual plan does not yet exist. The USDA knows full well where it needs to go to meet international guidelines. It plans to get there, using whatever tactics may be necessary, including changing its mind, shifting the dirty-work burden to the states, and funding public/private partnerships.

International guidelines call for an electronic animal tracking system as a requirement to participate in global markets. Industry giants, the exporters and the manufacturers of electronic technology – the companies that are members of the National Institute for Animal Agriculture – are determined to get a program in place. They have the money to pay lobbyists, to fund professional associations, and whatever else it may take.

The USDA has become little more than a flip-flopping facilitator for an unnecessary program that will benefit a few, at the expense of the many.



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