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USDA Listening Sessions Public Comments

Jolley: Five Minutes With The NAIS Issue

Almost two months ago USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack made a rash statement.

"Today, I am asking farmers and stakeholders to engage with USDA in a more productive dialogue about NAIS.  Now is the time to have frank and open conversations."

It was billed as a seven city listening tour to find common grounds for the eventual establishment of a NAIS program.  It quickly developed into a one-sided affair.  Vilsack, a long-time proponent from his days in Iowa's Governor's office, witnessed a firestorm of disapproval as small farmers and ranchers carpet-bombed the issue at every location.  He had to feel like a citizen of downtown London during the early days of WWII.  Unfortunately, in American politics, there are no underground "tubes" to escape the blitzkrieg.

To be sure, the battle wasn"t as lopsided as it appeared although listening session speakers who stood up to vilify NAIS outnumbered friends of the program by about ten to one.  I attended the added-on-at-the-last-minute Jefferson City session and the odds were about 250 to one; the one brave soul being a lonely Missouri hog farmer who was hooted off the stage.  There are proponents of an animal identification program but they seemed to be playing "duck and cover" during these sessions.

What Vilsack heard was a testament to the depth of feeling about a tremendously emotional issue for small farmers.  He also witnessed the incredibly effective "get-out-the-vote" talents of groups like R-CALF, NONAIS.org, NAISstinks.com, the Liberty Ark Coalition, USCA and a dozen other grass roots/ad hoc groups. 

As the listening sessions draw to an end and the issue reaches full boil, it's time to strike a fair and balanced pose and let both sides be heard.  I've talked with a lot of people on both sides of this battle and combed the web for interesting comments.  Here is what some of the more influential people and organizations had to say. 

Rhonda Perry, Missouri Rural Crisis Center:

 

MRCC opposes NAIS and is urging Secretary Vilsack to reject this irrelevant and unnecessary regulatory scheme.

NAIS is a solution in search of a problem, and one that will have a severely negative impact on independent family farmers and will do nothing to improve food safety and animal health.  If USDA is sincere in its attempt to protect livestock producers, consumers and animal health, it would focus its resources where the problems have been well documented. 

We have seen millions of pounds of meat recalled due to unsanitary conditions and a lack of USDA oversight at slaughter plants.  These problems are due to no fault of the producer, and this is one place we should be calling for increased scrutiny.  The attempt to push liability from the huge corporate packers onto the farmer will not make our food safer.  NAIS will not solve our food safety issues. 

Also, USDA has continued to allow imports of livestock from countries with known disease problems.  Corporate controlled factory farms are polluting our water, creating documented health problems and creating consumer concerns about food safety.  And there is a severe lack of competition, especially within the livestock marketplace, such that we have never seen in our history. 

The livestock industry is at risk as a result of USDA not addressing these "very real" problems, while instead they insist on pursuing this radical and colossal creation of corporate-driven, government bureaucracy.  There are a lot of things USDA can do right now to help producers, and NAIS is not one of them.

If USDA has the legitimate intention of addressing issues affecting producers in our country, it should use its political capitol to address things that really matter, and can make a real difference to family farmers and rural communities, such as:

-enforcing anti-trust laws to the fullest extent possible to address corporate captive supply of livestock.

-increasing oversight, inspections and testing at packing plants.

-stopping imports from countries with known disease problems.

-regulating industrial livestock operations, and stopping taxpayer subsidies from going to these bad actors.

-supporting and improving on disease control programs that are proven and effective, instead of wasting millions of dollars on an unknown, unproven and unwanted program.

Jon Wooster, USCA President:

 

"The proposed system has been examined by all the affected parties. After federal expenditures of $142 million since 2004, only one-third of the animal premises across the nation have enrolled in the program, sending a strong message that livestock producers do not support the proposed program. The House subcommittee vote is a signal that Congress is listening to producers."

"A recently released economic analysis of NAIS showed that the cattle industry would bear significant costs associated with the program, putting the cattle and beef industry at a disadvantage with competing protein sources," Wooster said. "During NAIS listening sessions being held across the nation, producers have echoed similar concerns about a federally mandated program that would add more economic burden to their operations."

"USCA has worked diligently with Congress and administration officials to represent producer interests on this matter in a reasonable and respectful manner, investing countless resources to do so. In doing so, USCA was successful in keeping the program voluntary while urging officials to develop a standardized system that would reward producers for providing origin, age, and animal husbandry practices. If producers unify and support USCA in its efforts to quash federal funding for the NAIS program, we will succeed in defeating, once and for all, this proposed system of animal identification. We will all be better off if such funding is used to integrate existing systems within various states."

Wendell Berry, Agrarian poet, small farm activist:

The need to trace animals was made by the confined animal industry - which are, essentially, disease breeding operations. The health issue was invented right there. The remedy is to put animals back on pasture, where they belong. The USDA is scapegoating the small producers to distract attention from the real cause of the trouble. Presumably these animal factories are, in a too familiar phrase, "too big to fail".

This is the first agricultural meeting I've ever been to in my life that was attended by the police. I asked one of them why he was there and he said: "Rural Kentucky". So thank you for your vote of confidence in the people you are supposed to be representing. I think the rural people of Kentucky are as civilized as anybody else.

But the police are here prematurely. If you impose this program on the small farmers, who are already overburdened, you're going to have to send the police for me. I'm 75 years old. I've about completed my responsibilities to my family. I'll lose very little in going to jail in opposition to your program - and I'll have to do it. Because I will be, in every way that I can conceive of, a non-cooperator.

I understand the principles of civil disobedience, from Henry Thoreau to Martin Luther King. And I�m willing to go to jail to defend the young people who, I hope, will still have a possibility of becoming farmers on a small scale in this supposedly free country. Thank you very much.

 

Dr. Ron DeHaven, AVMA CEO:

The American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) has recently testified before Congress about the National Animal Identification System (NAIS), a system that, once fully implemented, will allow diseased animals to be traced during a livestock disease outbreak. Dr. Ron Dehaven, chief executive officer of the AVMA, explains that only about a third of farms and facilities have been registered in this new system, and as a result NAIS can�t function as it was intended. That�s why the AVMA supports making the NAIS mandatory.

Click here to watch Dr. DeHaven's video statement: Dr Dehaven 2qk review

Dale Blasi, Kansas State University 

Producers have a right to be concerned and to make their opinions heard regarding the onerous aspects and costs associated with any federal government program. At this point in time, nobody knows what the unintended consequences of a coordinated, government animal identification system may be or if our nation�s herds and flocks will ever encounter an emerging or intentionally placed FAD on US soil.

However, it would be foolhardy and shortsighted for anyone to assume that that the risk of an FAD is zero or that our present methods of resolving a trace back or forward in a timely manner are adequate. If a significant disease situation were to arise where time is precious, would our respective state animal health and APHIS officials have adequate information and the tools to contain it in a timely fashion with a minimal impact on our nation�s food supply, trade restrictions, etc? 

From firsthand experience I would say that there is a TREMENDOUS amount of misinformation being circulated on the internet regarding the costs associated with incorporating an RFID system. My KSU colleague Dr. Kevin Dhuyvetter and I developed an Excel spreadsheet 4 years ago to help producers understand the costs of implementing an individual electronic management system for their herds. 

Of course, costs per head will be in excess of $40 when one includes the purchase price of a handheld reader and spreads its cost over a herd of 15 cattle. At the top of the spreadsheet found at: http://beefstockerusa.org/rfid/  we inserted a disclaimer statement that clearly pointed out that it may not be appropriate to allocate the costs of items such as readers towards a mandatory animal ID program. My point is that we simply don�t know what is going to be required in any federal animal identification system at this time.

Max Thornsberry, President, R-CALF

 

The reason USDA did not implement a mandatory National Animal Identification System (NAIS) in 2006 as was then planned, or anytime since, is because R-CALF USA members across the country have fought for over five years to effectively build a groundswell of opposition against it. The previous Administration mistakenly believed it could literally "buy" producers' support by paying millions to state governments and conventional industry trade associations to sign up cattle producers.  But the independence of U.S. cattle producers is alive and well and according to a February 2009 USDA "Info Sheet," only 16 percent of the nation's 750 million beef cattle operations had registered their "premises" under the program.

R-CALF USA met with Secretary Vilsack in February and asked him to cease all agency efforts to implement NAIS as one of three specific actions we asked the Secretary to take in the first few months of his Administration. We are pleased the Secretary has decided to investigate this issue on his own through his scheduled listening sessions.

Importantly, R-CALF USA's success so far in preventing mandatory NAIS is the result of the volumes of research we have done to debunk the baseless claims made by USDA, the packers and conventional industry supporters. For example, USDA and its industry allies erroneously claim NAIS is needed because the average time spent by USDA to conduct traceback investigations was 199 days. This is a startling but false statistic and has become the NAIS proponents' chief rallying cry.

However, R-CALF USA's extensive research, which is included in my recent congressional testimony, revealed that USDA's own Inspector General found that USDA's disease investigations were hampered because of agency management problems: USDA failed to collect ear tags at the time of slaughter, was not timely using its oversight tools, was not reviewing regular summaries submitted by states, was not following federal regulations, was not requiring slaughtering facilities to conduct surveillance, was not monitoring high-risk herds, was not monitoring on-farm testing, and was not providing sufficient training to disease investigators.

R-CALF USA members continue to lead the fight against NAIS, and you will hear from them that NAIS is fundamentally flawed, is an international marketing program disguised as a disease program, is an un-American and unconstitutional encumbrance on free enterprise, will reduce competition, will accelerate the ongoing exodus of producers from the cattle industry, is unworkable and not economically feasible, and will, in fact, hamper legitimate disease traceback investigations.  

National Farmers Union Statement

NFU supports a federally-controlled National Animal Identification System (NAIS). A verifiable NAIS could provide valuable trace-back capability to help identify the source of many food safety issues. Without an adequate NAIS in place, quality food is at risk.

Since the discovery of a Canadian-born, BSE-infected cow in the United States, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has begun implementation of a NAIS. NFU has several concerns with USDA's proposal to allow a privately managed database system, including: It forces producers to bear the financial burden; it will create a revenue source for private entities seeking to make a profit; it does not contain oversight to protect consumer information.

We are encouraged by the steps taken thus far, yet many questions remain and we urge close consideration of the following:

Costs of implementing the program remain uncertain. The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has stated that this program is a necessity, therefore, we urge DHS to provide full funding to create and maintain the database.

A seamless system should be provided at all levels to ensure the information gathered is complementary with that provided through mandatory country-of-origin labeling.

There should be clear limits to the use of the database information, and should be provided only for animal disease and bio terrorism trace-back purposes.

National Cattlemen's Beef Association:

NCBA recognizes and supports the need for a National Animal Identification System for the purpose of enabling state and federal animal health officials to respond rapidly and effectively to animal health emergencies, such as foreign animal disease outbreaks or emerging domestic diseases. Many of NCBA's members already participate voluntarily in numerous animal identification programs as one of many tools to improve their herds, monitor disease, and better market their cattle. However, NCBA members continue to have concerns with NAIS, which is why NCBA's policy supports a voluntary -- rather than a mandatory -- system.

NCBA members are particularly concerned about the protection of producers' confidential information, which would be housed in a USDA-maintained database. The federal government has not demonstrated a strong track-record when it comes to preventing the leak of private information, and USDA has not been able to guarantee that the information in a mandatory system would be protected from release under a Freedom of Information (FOIA) request. USDA's own Office of General Counsel has indicated that protection is different between a voluntary and mandatory system.

NCBA is also concerned about the system's ability to move at the speed of commerce. The working, processing, and marketing of cattle cannot slow down in order to be scanned and entered into the system.

It is also important to note that animal ID will not serve to enhance food safety, nor was it intended for this purpose.

Glen Cope, Chairman of the Missouri Farm Bureau's Beef Advisory Committee:


"Farm Bureau nationally and in Missouri believe participation in a National Animal Identification System should remain the choice of each farmer and rancher."

"Over half of our state's agricultural receipts come from the livestock and poultry sector, hence our concern about how much animal identification will cost and who will pay the price. An adequate cost-share agreement must be established among government, industry and producers to prevent farmers and ranchers from being burdened with an unreasonable share of the cost of implementing a modern, streamlined animal identification system.

"In order for the program to be successful, producers must be assured their proprietary information will be protected from public disclosure under the Freedom of Information Act. In addition, there must be clarity on which state and federal agencies will have access to the data. Congress should pass legislation to ensure the privacy of producers' information submitted to the NAIS from access by competitors, activist groups and governmental agencies not directly associated with animal health protection.

"We understand the importance of animal identification for disease control and eradication, but remain concerned that enhanced traceability may expose farmers and ranchers to liability issues arising from food and safety incidents occurring at the other end of the supply chain. Farmers and ranchers must be appropriately protected from the consequences of the actions of others after their animals are no longer in their own control.

"Finally, we believe producers must understand both the purpose and the procedures for participating in the NAIS. Additional federal resources for outreach would aid in this, but more important to the success of a voluntary program is USDA's approach to implementation. Through written and oral comments we have stressed the importance of engaging producers, agriculture organizations and others in the animal identification dialogue.

"Unfortunately, even when farmers and ranchers are afforded the opportunity to provide input, they feel as though USDA is not being attentive to their needs. Missouri Farm Bureau asks that you take seriously the legitimate concerns raised here today and commit to a greater level of transparency in the weeks and months ahead."

PS: Next week I hope to have Five Minutes with Tom Vilsack.

Comments?: [email protected]

Chuck Jolley is a free lance writer, based in Kansas City, who covers a wide range of ag industry topics for Cattlenetwork.com and Agnetwork.com.

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