In February 2010, Secretary Vilsack announced that the USDA would drop its plans for the National Animal Identification System (NAIS) and re-focus its efforts on a "new framework" for animal traceability. The Secretary stated the new framework would apply only to animals that cross state lines and would encourage the use of low-tech methods of identification.
The USDA's announcement sparked widely divergent reactions. Groups representing independent farmers and local consumers applauded the USDA's decision. But the proponents of NAIS, namely the Big Ag and Big Tech groups, expressed disappointment and issued statements about the horrible things that could supposedly happen without a centralized ID system. These pro-NAIS entities quickly re-grouped and announced plans to adopt "model regulations" (i.e. NAIS-type regulations) at the State level.
But the issue is also still far from over even at the federal level. Despite USDA's announcement, Big Ag and Big Tech are pushing for a more expansive federal program. And key bureaucrats who developed NAIS continue to work within the agency, and they do not seem to have changed their views despite the announcements from the top.
USDA has held five public meetings on its new animal traceability framework and announced three more for August. These meetings are much more controlled and government-dominated than last year's listening sessions on NAIS. The agenda for each of these sessions calls for questions to be answered only at the end of the meeting, after the participants are broken out into tables to provide input. At each breakout table, there are several USDA and state agency staff, guiding the conversation. And since the breakout groups' discussions are not in the record - only a brief report at the end of the session is recorded - many comments are simply lost in the process. As a result, many comments that are opposed to the USDA's plans get screened out.
The USDA's new proposal was developed by a "Regulatory Working Group" (RWG) made up of five state vets and five tribal representatives. The proposal includes four performance standards, which set how quickly States and Tribes must be able to perform four activities:
- The State where the animal is located must notify the State or Tribe where the animal of interest was originally identified: 95% within 1 business day
- The State or Tribe where the animal of interest was officially identified must identify the
"traceability unit" in which the animal was identified: 75% within 5 business days, with a later phase requiring 95% within 2 business days
- The State where the animal is located must notify the State or Tribe from which the animal was last shipped: 95% within 7 business days, with a later phase requiring 95% within 3 business days
- The State from which the animal was last shipped must identify the "traceability unit" from which the animal was shipped: 75% within 5 business days, with a later phase requiring 95% within 2 business days
I attended both the Colorado meeting in May and the most recent Texas meeting. Many farmers, sale barn owners, horse owners, and consumers also came, and we raised many concerns.
- What is the basis for the new proposal? While the "performance standards" are less stringent than NAIS was, they still lack a scientific basis. At my breakout table, a USDA vet stated that the performance standards were based on the "experience" of the state vets and regulatory officials. While experience is important, why is their experience prioritized over the experience of animal owners who deal with animal health every day? Before imposing any new requirements on animal owners, the agency needs to provide solid scientific and economic analyses to show why these steps are needed.
- Are performance standards the right approach? Should USDA be setting standards when it is far from clear how the States would be able to achieve them?
- There is still no analysis of where the real problem lies. Is it truly an animal identification problem? Or are the problems with traceability due to bureaucratic inefficiencies or other issues? On the issue of animal health, where are the gaps?
- There is a continued assumption that electronic ID is the best approach. While USDA has committed to using low-tech methods for the framework, there are repeated references to "progress over time," and every government speaker emphasized the benefits of RFID tags. I asked whether USDA intended to analyze the effectiveness of the program before moving towards electronic ID, pointing to the success of the scrapie program using non-electronic ID. In response, Neil Hammerschmidt said there were no such plans. Dr. Wiemers went further, and contended that, while non-electronic ID has worked for the scrapie program, it is not sufficient for tracing all movements. Yet the advocates of electronic ID continue to fail to show that it is needed or cost-effective.
- The proposal itself is confusing and unclear. For example, there is no written definition of "traceability unit," and we've heard three different definitions at three different public meetings. At the Colorado meeting, Colorado State Vet Dr. Roehr stated that it was a geographical unit and could be anything from the whole state to a set of counties to a county to an individual premises. At the Utah meeting, Montana State Vet Dr. Zaluski stated that the traceability unit was either a physical location or a group of animals. At the Texas meeting, Oklahoma State Vet Dr. Brewer stated that "ultimately" it is a premises. Three members of the RWG, with three different statements on what the term means! How can the public provide input when the people who drafted the proposal can't even explain it clearly?
At the Congressional level, the House Agricultural Appropriations Subcommittee and the Senate Appropriations Committee have both zeroed out the funding for animal ID in the 2011 Appropriations bill. The Subcommittee rejected USDA's request for $14.2 million for FY 2011. However, as noted by the Senate Committee, the funding may be re-instated later in the process.
The reasons for cutting funding vary, and the Chair of the Subcommittee, Congresswoman DeLauro, stated: "We have spent over $147 million on this program since 2004. ... We do not feel it is a good use of resources to fund NAIS until the agency develops a clear plan for a mandatory system with measurable goals, long-term funding levels, and a plan for successful implementation."
We agree that Congress should not spend any more taxpayer dollars on the program. But the answer is not to create a mandatory program as DeLauro seeks to do. Rather, Congress and USDA should re-focus the agency on preventative measures to protect animal health rather than a traceability program that benefits Big Ag's export market while burdening small farmers.
This article is intended for educational and informational purposes only and is not intended to be nor should it be construed as either a legal opinion or as legal advice.