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USDA Listening Sessions Public Comments

Kathy Smith - Report on the USDA/NAIS Listening Session, Pasco, Washington,  May 18, 2009  

Before the meeting began, Bert and I introduced ourselves to Dr. Dave Morris, USDA vet and NAIS program manager from Fort Collins, CO.  We reminded him of our first meeting at the Utah Cattlemen’s Association conference in 2006.  At that time, he confided to me, then a Utah state government worker, that the hardest thing about the NAIS program would be to get individuals to register their premises.  When I asked him about it again, on May 18th, he agreed that that was probably right.  I commented, “You’re not going to like living in this country either.”  His reply to me was, “I know.”

Another offline comment that I heard from Dave Morris and other USDA staffers was, “Congress is giving us our marching orders.”  In other words, my hunch is that USDA and Congress will use each other as scapegoats in the NAIS issue.  Congress will say that USDA told them the NAIS was necessary for disease traceability and food safety.

USDA staff opened the meeting by introducing themselves, Dr. Larry Granger, Dr. Dave Morris, Dr. Jim Weisers, and Ken somebody, who served as timekeeper.  Several other USDA staff and/or contracted facilitators were present, probably a dozen in all.

The agenda was adjusted to allow more time for the public comment period, which began immediately after the brief welcome and introductions by and of the USDA.  The lottery system was utilized, but when all numbers were drawn, USDA allowed anyone else who wanted to speak to come to the microphone.  This period lasted from about 9:30-11:30.  It appeared that comments were recorded, both by audio tape and by a court recorder.

Of the more than 30 “three minute” comments, the overwhelming majority of speakers were opposed to the NAIS.  Only three spoke in favor of the program, a dairyman, a rep for an ear tag manufacturer, and the Washington State veterinarian, and even he sounded lukewarm towards the NAIS.  Premises registration was a common concern, with questions voiced about the loss of privacy, access to property by government officials, and the meaning of the word “premise” itself.  The unconstitutionality of NAIS was also a common thread during the comment period.  “It just won’t work” was expressed several times.

Bert and I were surprised at the passion others voiced against the USDA itself.  Where once the USDA may have been viewed a friend of the industry, cow/calf producers don’t feel that way now.  There is a high level of mistrust of the USDA, its officials, and its motives.  Most view NAIS as a means to control farmers and ranchers and their land, not as a means of controlling disease.  If the USDA were really concerned about disease control, our borders would be closed to questionable imports and inspection standards would be more stringent.  Traceability in this country is already effective through brands.

At 11:30, USDA staff gave their powerpoint presentation on NAIS, which lasted about 20 minutes, then the session broke for lunch, reconvening at 12:50 into three breakout sessions.  Bert and I attended separate breakouts.  In the one I attended, everyone was allowed ample time to speak and some spoke multiple times.  The general consensus was that even a voluntary NAIS is unacceptable.  USDA officials were unwilling to answer any questions. Whenever a question was posed, the facilitator replied that they were just there to listen and gather input, not to answer questions.  The facilitator kept reminding participants that the USDA was seeking solutions to make the NAIS workable.  This group was hard pressed to come up with solutions. The general consensus was an overwhelming majority against NAIS and to do away with it completely.  Most were not even willing to compromise with a voluntary program.

In the breakout session that Bert attended, one feedlot man stated it was dangerous not to have traceback because of commingling.  He was in favor of the tag for traceback and for the export market.

Bert referred to the Utah State University’s report on NAIS estimating that the program would cost $35-$60/head, depending on the size of the operation. Add to that the proposed carbon emission tax, and the destruction of the cattle business in the United States is complete. All agreed that fines and jail time penalties for non-compliance are excessive and aimed at taking private property.

I heard R-CALF USA’s proposal for a workable system mentioned once.  Since the USDA claims to be looking for solutions, how can the R-CALF USA proposal be promoted more broadly by producers and heard more fairly by Congress and the USDA?

Kathy Smith

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