Tide rising against animal surveillance
By Henry Lamb
When the USDA announced its new National Animal Identification System in 2005, it was scheduled to become mandatory in three phases: property registration by 2007; animal identification and registration by 2008; and reporting - within 24 hours - of animal movement off the registered property by 2009.
Even under the best of circumstances, it was an impossible goal. The idea of assigning a seven-digit number to every property in the nation that houses even a single chicken, horse, cow, goat, sheep, or any one of 29 species of animals - is simply unrealistic, especially if the owners of the property don't want their property registered in a government database.
Even more ridiculous is the idea of tagging each of these hundreds of millions of animals with a radio frequency identification device containing a unique 15-digit number. And perhaps the height of unrealistic expectations was that the owners of these registered and tagged animals would report to the government every time a registered animal was moved from the registered property - within 24 hours.
The USDA anticipated big fines for non-compliance as a way to enforce the "mandatory."
It took only a few months after the program was announced for the USDA to realize it was causing a rebellion. Small farmers, ranchers, and backyard gardeners with a chicken or two, joined together in local groups and national coalitions to tell the USDA the NAIS was not acceptable.
Whether intimidated by the loud public outcry, or the realization that it could not meet its goals, the USDA announced in 2006 that the NAIS was no longer "mandatory," but would be a voluntary program.
On its web site, the USDA boasts that more than 400,000 owners of livestock animals have registered in the "voluntary" program. They say nothing about the fact that in Idaho alone, more than 15,000 animal owners were registered in the NAIS without their knowledge or permission, according to John Chatburn, deputy administrator of Idaho's Division of Animal Identification.
The USDA has showered $138 million dollars on state departments of agriculture, and other organizations, to entice - some people say "bribe" - them to get people to register their property in the NAIS. There is no way to know how many of the 400,000 properties registered in the NAIS, have been registered without the owners knowledge or permission.
Perhaps the most diabolical bribery perpetrated by the USDA is a $633,000 grant to the Future Farmers of America to secure FFA support in signing up properties in the NAIS. A cheap price, indeed, to have Ag teachers across the nation urging their students to convince their parents to register in the NAIS.
Even worse, FFA and 4H kids were not allowed to show or sell their animal at the Colorado State Fair unless the animal came from a property that was registered in the so-called "voluntary" NAIS.
Parents and ranchers alike cried foul, claiming the Fair Association was holding the children hostage, and forcing them to sign up in what is publicized as a "voluntary" program. "This is coercion;" and "This is not fair;" and "This is more USDA deception;" are some of the more common responses to this practice.
The worst deception is the reality that the entire program was designed by the manufacturers of the RFID tags and the tag reading equipment, and the meat exporters. The USDA just rewarded the tag manufacturers to the tune of $1.7 million. These manufacturers and the meat packers are the primary members of the National Institute for Animal Agriculture, who first proposed the program to the USDA. International trade agreements require that exporting countries have in place an electronic "trace-back" system. Meat packers will have new export markets if the NAIS becomes functional.
USDA says the program is to identify and trace the source of a diseased animal within 48 hours.
There are already several programs in place to do just that. There has not been a case of foot and mouth disease in the U.S. since 1929, and all other animal diseases are under control. U.S. meat is the safest, and most desired, in the world. Food safety would not be improved one whit by the creation of megadatabases containing property information on millions of farms and ranches and homesteads, and hundreds of millions of animals.
The NAIS would create another bungling bureaucracy to lose the data it gathers in a process that penalizes animal owners with costs and aggravation - for no benefit to themselves. The benefits would accrue to the large meat packers and exporters, to the manufacturers of the tags and tag reading equipment, and of course to the USDA's expanded budget, personnel and power.
Henry Lamb is the executive vice president of the Environmental Conservation Organization (ECO), and chairman of Sovereignty International.