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Farmers and Federal Judge Oppose NAIS Flawed Plan

Opponents Welcome US Federal Judge's Ruling

Agriculture Online
3:41 PM, June 16, 2008

KANSAS CITY (Dow Jones)--Opponents of the National Animal Identification System Monday are commending a Federal District judge for his action in a case seeking to keep the U.S. Department of Agriculture from applying Privacy Act safeguards to the information it has on hand.

Emmit Sullivan, judge for the Federal District Court in Washington D.C., made the ruling early last week. The ruling effectively halts USDA plans to protect current animal-identification information under the Privacy Act.

The information in question is a list of farms and ranches across the land that are entered into the database and given a premises ID number. The USDA had scheduled converting it to a system of records under the Privacy Act on June 9, but critics feared excessive secrecy of the information if this was done.

NAIS began collecting premises information in September of 2004. Officials envision a system that will be able to - for speedy control of disease - trace within 48 hours all locations where a particular diseased animal spent its life.

Listing a premises with the NAIS is supposed to be voluntary, but critics have charged that actual practices fall far short of a strictly voluntary sign-up. Farmers and ranchers also had not been notified that the records might be folded into the privacy act when they signed up, said Leonard Brown, an attorney with Clymer & Musser of Lancaster, Pa. Brown represents Mary Zanoni, executive director of Farm For Life, an organization representing small farmers.

Legal negotiations involving Zanoni's suit seeking a restraining order against the USDA resulted in an agreement from the USDA that it would delay indefinitely its NAIS/Privacy Act actions, and the judge sealed the deal with his order, said Barbara Good, Attorney-Advisor, for the Office of General Council in the General Law Division of the USDA.

Charles Miller, spokesman for the Civil Division of the Department of Justice, would only say that the order is under review. Beyond that, he had no comment.

One of the fears of critics to the NAIS program has been that anti-animal agriculture groups or others could access the data-base via the Freedom of Information Act and figure out some private business information about a farmer or rancher. Putting the list under the protection of the Privacy Act may have been aimed at preventing this, Brown said.

However, there are thought to be some problems with the list itself, and there are unanswered questions about folding it into the Privacy Act. This is what Zanoni sought to address with her lawsuits, Brown said.

Zanoni filed a Freedom of Information Act request for the entire database, but the USDA said some of the records were not eligible for disclosure under the FOIA, Brown said. To counter this, she filed for a temporary restraining order to prevent the USDA from going ahead with its plans to place the list under the Privacy Act, he said.

Critics said they believed the database contains thousands of names of people who don't even know they're on the list. The information could have been submitted by state and county fair organizers, local veterinarians or others without the knowledge or consent of those involved, they said.

Zanoni wanted to pre-empt the list's sealing with a suit and a Freedom-of-Information request for the database, Brown said. She also wanted a list of those who had requested to have their names and premises removed from the list and the status of those requests not yet completed. He said the USDA is nearly ready to turn over the larger list, but is dragging its feet on the status report for those wanting to be removed.

The fear was that once the list was sealed with the Privacy Act, producers would be prevented from accessing information about their own or previously owned livestock, said Bill Bullard, CEO of R-CALF United Stockgrowers of America, a cattlemen's group opposed to the NAIS program, said. They might need to have a record of a previously owned animal's movements if there ever is a liability issue over what turns out to be a diseased animal, he said.

According to a Federal Register notice dated April 30, access to the database after Privacy Act shielding would require a password and a PIN. The USDA's Animal and Plant Health Inspection system would be able to share the information with federal and state animal health officials for traceback of a diseased animal.

There has been no effort by the USDA to address those access concerns, Brown said. Maybe USDA officials intended that a producer have access to that information, but so far, nothing has been communicated, Brown said.

Bullard and others also said there was concern that the USDA doesn't have the Congressional authority to do what it's doing with the NAIS. Congress hasn't really addressed all the concerns of producers, he said.

-By Lester Aldrich, Dow Jones Newswires