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Get government out of NAIS

By Henry Lamb
web posted May 22, 2006

America's economic power arises from the entrepreneurial spirit encouraged by a free market. Government involvement in the marketplace is always a deterrent, but is sometimes justified to insure consumer and worker safety, and fair competition. Government intrusion into the market- place should always focus on these goals, and be as minimal as possible.

The National Animal Identification System, as proposed by the USDA, seeks to improve food safety by creating a mechanism through which animal disease can be traced to its source within 48 hours. While this sounds like an admirable goal, it is essentially, an unnecessary goal. The program has been devised, not because a need to trace animal disease has been identified, but because an international committee decided some years ago, that the world should have an animal identification system to protect international markets.

Neil Hammerschmidt, director of the U.S. National Animal Identification System, helped develop the international program before taking charge of the U.S. program. Immediately prior to his present position, from 1998 to 2003, he chaired the Identification and Information System Committee of the National Institute for Animal Agriculture. While NIAA may sound like a public interest organization, its membership reads like a who's who in industrial agriculture and technology, including entities such as Cargill Pork, Tyson, National Pork Producers Council, and Global Vet Link. The current U.S. program was actually proposed to the USDA by the NIAA in 2002.

Although the program embraces virtually all farm livestock - chickens, ducks, geese, turkeys, horses, goats, pigs, cows alpacas, llamas, and any other animal the USDA decides to add to the list, it is primarily designed to enhance the beef export market. In 2003, beef exports were $7.5 billion. The beef export market crashed that year, after the first case of "mad cow" disease was discovered in the U.S. In 2005, beef exports were only $1.22 billion.

It is certainly understandable that beef producers, packers, and their trade associations want to do something to restore the export market. But a massive, government-imposed National Animal Identification System is certainly not the way to do it.

Proponents of the program argue that a national ID program is now the international standard, and nothing short of this program will satisfy the international market. Moreover, proponents claim that Wal Mart and McDonalds, the largest domestic markets, are demanding an identification program. If this is, indeed, the case, then let the market develop a program, but not one imposed by government on every farm, and farm animal, in the nation.

Let an innovative market create a voluntary system which commands a premium price for cattle enrolled in an ID program. There is simply no need for government to impose an intrusive, national program on every premises that houses a single livestock animal, in order to help the beef industry regain its place in the international marketplace.

Let's be clear; the instigators and the promoters of the NAIS program seek first, to regain access to international markets. Food safety is little more than an excuse to justify the program. The goal of any effort to protect the food supply chain should focus on prevention, not after-the-fact tracing. The mere mention of "mad cow disease" stirs deep public fear, but this is a non-contagious disease that takes years to develop. A national tracking program would do nothing to prevent, or contain the disease. The disease is caused by contaminated feed, which was banned in the U.S. nearly ten years ago.

Foot and mouth disease, however, is a constant concern, even though there has not been an outbreak in the U.S. since 1929. The greatest risk of this disease comes from imported animals, where food safety concerns should be focused. Import control and vaccines offer the best avenue for prevention of this disease. A national backtracking system is too late to be a meaningful safety tool here.

It is neither fair, nor necessary, to impose a government-mandated animal identification system on every person in the nation who owns even a single farm animal, in order to enhance the international market for beef exporters. Government should abandon the idea of forcing all people everywhere to report the location and movement of each of their farm animals to a central database. This program will do nothing to enhance food safety; it will only enhance the profits of the beef exporters, and the profits of those who produce the tracking technology. These are the people who are pushing the program, not the people who will have to comply with it.

Henry Lamb is the executive vice president of the Environmental Conservation Organization (ECO), and chairman of Sovereignty International.

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