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Where were the USDA inspectors?

By Henry Lamb
web posted February 25, 2008

The biggest meat recall in the history of the world topped the domestic news last week:  143-million pounds of beef, processed over the last two years, now scattered throughout the nation's schools and fast-food joints - all recalled.  The USDA had little choice.  An animal rights group released videotape of "downer" cows being pushed around by a fork lift, and being dragged across filthy floors, before joining healthy cows on the hamburger highway.

The big question raised by everyone is, where were the USDA inspectors?

Food safety is the most important responsibility of the USDA.  The problem at the Hallmark/Westland Meat Packing Company in Chino, California, occurred two years ago.  Had the secret video never appeared, the meat would have never been recalled.  Why can the public not depend upon the USDA to keep the food safe during the processing operation?

The USDA has misplaced priorities.  For the last several years, the top priority at the USDA has not been food safety, but the creation of a National Animal Identification System (NAIS).  Nearly $150-million has been spent on promoting NAIS.  This money would have been better spent on more inspectors to oversee the meat processing plants.

NAIS money is often spent to bribe non-government organizations into a Public/Private Partnership to promote the NAIS.  The Future Farmers of America were paid $633,000 to encourage FFA kids to get their parents to register their property into the program.  In fact, if an analysis of the not-for-profit organizations that are promoting NAIS were published, it would be a pretty complete list of where the USDA's $150-million NAIS money went.

This NAIS that has the USDA in such a dither has nothing to do with food safety.  Had the system been completely in force, it would not have prevented the "downer" cows in California from getting into the food supply.  Nor would it have prevented any of the other meat recalls in recent years.  Only a more efficient USDA inspection program can improve food safety.

The NAIS is an outgrowth of international agreements, brought to the USDA by the National Institute of Animal Agriculture, a not-for-profit organization consisting of large meat packers, manufacturers of animal tags and tag-reading equipment, and the National Association of State Departments of Agriculture.  These are the organizations that benefit financially from the NAIS. The farmers, ranchers, and producers – the people who must pay the costs and comply with the regulations – were not invited to participate in the development of the program.

The NAIS is a mind-boggling concept.  The vision seeks to identify and register, with geo-satellite coordinates, every property where a single livestock animal is housed; identify and tag with a computer-readable tag, every livestock animal across 29 species; and then record the movement of every animal that moves off its registered premises, within 24 hours. 

Step back for a moment and visualize this massive computer system and database: more than 100-million properties, that trace the movements – within 24 hours - of more than a half-billion animals; and the legions of bureaucrats that it will take to run the system.  For  what?  Food safety would not be improved one whit.

Why is this program being pushed so hard, while the meat inspection program goes begging?  International agreements limit the export of meat   from countries that do not have an electronic tracking system.  Therefore, big packers need to have an electronic system in place – regardless of whether it works or not – in order to maximize their exports.  The tag and reader manufacturers anticipate a windfall, and the State Departments of Agriculture - some of which have been known to sign up state residents without their knowledge or permission - and the USDA anticipate a "full employment act" like none other.

The animal owners who have to pay the costs and comply with the regulations are told that the program is voluntary, but urged to sign up – "for the good of the country."  The USDA's deep pockets and bribes to Public/Private Partners make the program anything but voluntary.  FFA and 4-H kids were not allowed to show their animals at the Colorado State Fair – unless their premises were registered in the NAIS.  This practice has now spread to North Carolina, and other states are considering similar rules.  Voluntary, indeed!

The USDA is now dickering with certain breed associations, encouraging them to not register animals for people who are not first registered in the NAIS.  Members of large trade associations that are promoting the NAIS should ask their leaders just how much money the association received from the USDA.

People who were registered without their permission, and people who registered before they understood what NAIS is, can now withdraw from the program.  But neither the USDA, nor state departments of agriculture will explain the procedure unless they are forced to do so. 

The USDA should abandon its pie-in-the-sky vision for enriching the big guys.  Instead, it should concentrate on improving the food inspection system so Americans do not have to endure the monthly food recalls caused by the USDA's failure to do its job. ESR

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






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