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Livestock tracing bill could be end of family farms, ranches

By Timothy P. Carney
Examiner Columnist | 3/13/09 5:01 AM

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Congress is considering legislation aimed at making our food supply safer, but for small farmers and ranchers, one such bill looks like another example of big business and big government teaming up to get the little guy out of the way.

Nobody’s written the bill yet, but the idea pushed in a congressional hearing this week was to create a mandatory program that would allow the U.S. Department of Agriculture to track every single head of livestock in the country. This would allow the government to track and contain outbreaks of animal infections, supporters argue, protecting consumers from tainted meat.

On the government’s end, this requires a database and tracking hardware and software, plus enforcement. On the farmers’ end, this involves putting a radio-frequency ID tag on every animal, registering every animal and every premises that has animals, and reporting to the USDA all deaths, births, and sales.

The USDA already operates a voluntary program called the National Animal Identification System (NAIS). Rep. David Scott, D-N.C., chairman of the Livestock, Dairy, and Poultry subcommittee of the House Agriculture Committee, advocates making NAIS mandatory for all farmers and ranchers.

Mandatory animal tagging and tracking follows a pattern we’ve seen before in many consumer-safety laws: Politicians, claiming to safeguard the people and spurred by self-proclaimed consumer-protection groups, advance regulation favored by industry giants who understand that the regulations’ burden may crush smaller competitors.

It’s informative to study who’s backing mandatory NAIS, and who’s opposing it.

On the pro-regulation side, lobbying records and congressional testimony show, are McDonalds, the National Pork Producers Council, the National Milk Producer Federation, and some technology companies that likely hope to get in on the action of tracking all these animals.

On the anti-regulation side are hundreds of family farmers and ranchers who argue the mandate will crush them. If you are a corporate ranch, the costs and hassles of tracking each animal by RFID tags may be worth it in any event, while smaller outfits do better with cheaper, old-fashioned methods of tracking their herds. Think of Wal-Mart’s inventory control compared to a mom-n-pop corner store.

Separate from congressional discussions about mandating NAIS, the USDA has proposed a new uniform numbering system for the current voluntary NAIS. The public comments on this regulation reflect the small rancher outrage over the program. Nearly 5,000 comments have been filed, many by farmers, almost all negative, and mostly directed at NAIS itself rather than the numbering proposal.

In a New York Times op-ed this week, one family farmer described the burdens this law would impose. “Each time one of those animals is sold or dies, or is trucked to a slaughterhouse, we would have to notify the Agriculture Department. And there would be penalties if we failed to account for a lamb quietly stolen by a coyote, and medical bills if we were injured when trying to come between a protective sow and her piglets so we could tag them.”

NAIS is not the only costly food-safety regulation being considered in Washington these days. The proposed Food Safety Modernization Act would create new government agencies and new strict regulations that, according to critics, would spell the end of farmers’ markets.

Just as the salmonella-in-peanut scare spurred the Food Safety Modernization Act, bird flu and hoof-and-mouth scares have spurred the call for mandatory animal tracking. But we’ve seen this scare-to-regulation act before, and it hasn’t ended well.

Articles from Marblehead, Massachusetts, this week tell of thrift stores throwing out perfectly good children’s clothes; meanwhile, many artisan toymakers worry they will be driven out of business. The reason: the Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act rushed to passage last year—with Rep. Ron Paul, R-Tex., the only dissenting vote in the House—after the lead-in-Chinese-toys scares from 2007.

And in all these regulations, there’s another common thread. The biggest businesses in the regulated industries—often the businesses whose sloppiness lead to the safety scares in the first place—support the regulations. The big companies have the lobbyists to craft the fine print in the regulations, and they also have the economies of scale to bear the burdens.

Government regulation is usually billed as a check on big business by the people’s representatives. Looking closer, however, reveals that regulation is often a big-government power grab that crushes smaller businesses and protects the big guys.



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