Press Release: Family Farmers, Ranchers and Local Food Advocates Criticize Efforts to Tie School Lunch Program to Animal ID

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

Family Farmers, Ranchers and Local Food Advocates Criticize Efforts to Tie School Lunch Program to Animal ID
Provision in House Agriculture Appropriations Bill would Undermine Local, Grassfed and Organic Food Movement

(June 25, 2008) – A wide coalition of family farmers, independent ranchers, organic and local food system advocates from across the country today criticized a provision to be included in the House Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee’s markup bill that would force USDA to purchase meat for the school lunch program only from sources that are registered in the controversial National Animal Identification System (NAIS). The Appropriations bill also increases funding for NAIS $4.8 million above 2008, for a total of $14.5 million for FY2009. The NAIS provisions will harm the growing local food movement and consumer demand for sustainable meat while giving unfair advantages to industrial factory farms who are responsible for the overwhelming majority of hazardous food safety practices.

Given recent food safety scandals, from salmonella-infected tomatoes to the downer cow abuse at the Hallmark/Westland plant in Chino, California, consumer anxiety is now at an all-time high. The explosive growth in farmers markets and interest in local foods has arisen from deep concerns with our industrial agriculture system and the environmental, public health and animal welfare impacts of industrial livestock factories. NAIS will not do anything to provide for our children’s safety and health due to:

Targeting family farmers as the source of the problem instead of industrial livestock operations. Factory farms that house thousands of animals in confined conditions are permitted to have one group number while a farmer with 10 chickens or cattle ranchers raising grassfed beef must individually tag every animal, often with expensive electronic tags.

Dena Hoff, vice-president of the National Family Farm Coalition and a Montana farmer said, “As a grandparent, parent and producer, I am extremely concerned about food safety. But this is not the right way to assure food safety and only burdens those of us who care about how we raise our animals and our food while letting the factory farms off the hook. To ensure our children’s safety, we need local sources of meat where parents can see the conditions the animals are raised and slaughtered in.”

USDA’s lack of enforcement inspections and lax testing regulations. The downer cow abuse exposed at the Hallmark/Westland was a failure on the part of the meatpacking plant to follow existing USDA laws. USDA has also refused to do proper testing for mad cow and e.coli and allowed meat processing plants to escape inspections, where much of the food safety contaminations occur. NAIS misdirects the burden for food safety from corporate processors onto family farmers and ranchers.

Bill Bullard, Chief Executive Officer of Ranchers-Cattlemen Action Legal Fund, United Stockgrowers of America (R-CALF), said, “The safety of the U.S. beef supply has not been compromised by U.S. farmers and ranchers. Instead, the safety of the U.S. beef supply has been compromised due to the USDA’s failure to provide adequate oversight and enforcement of existing health and safety standards. The Westland/Hallmark fiasco was the direct result of USDA’s failure to enforce the prohibition against the slaughter of downer cattle for human consumption, and the NAIS could not have mitigated this failure.”

Harm sustainable, independent producers ability to supply schools with local food. In the wake of the downer cow controversy, many school districts began looking at the sources of their meat and exploring healthier options for students. By linking NAIS to the school lunch program, many organic, grassfed and other specialty producers, unable to bear the costs of the program, will lose valuable market access, despite complying currently with traceback requirements.

“Tracking an animal is not the same as tracking a pathogen,” stated Debra Eschmeyer of the National Farm to School Network who also raises organic fruits, vegetables, and chickens on her farm in Ohio. “I respect Representatives Rosa DeLauro (D-CT) and David Obey (D-WI) for championing food safety, but I am not clear that this provision to require the School Lunch Program to purchase meat products from NAIS registered premises is about food safety. The downer cow that instigated the Hallmark/Westland beef recall was tagged and identified, but that did not make our school lunches safer. Farm to School programs are focused on children knowing where their food comes from and actually putting a face to the farmer—the ultimate traceability—by actually visiting the farm, not by putting a tag on each of my chickens.”

Jack Kittredge, a certified organic hog and poultry farmer and public policy coordinator for the Northeast Organic Farming Association/Massachusetts explained why the NAIS linkage to school lunch purchases would put additional burdens on organic producers: “Meat or poultry, to be certified organic, has to be fully traceable from its origins at birth or hatching through to slaughter. This makes perfect sense since the consumer is purchasing a premium product and needs to know it was always raised on organic feed, had access to the out-of-doors, did not receive antibiotics or hormones, and was treated humanely. Such traceability is perfectly appropriate and organic animal raisers are proud to maintain it. NAIS does not trace any of these important aspects of raising, however. It only traces the premise(s) where the animal was raised. It does nothing to prevent disease, stop inhumane treatment, or avoid contamination.”

Misleading farmers on “Voluntary” nature of NAIS. USDA has now backed off its initial mandatory enforcement of NAIS and has expended much PR effort towards convincing farmers that the program is voluntary and that farmers will only be enrolled if they consent to register their premises. Several states have already passed bills to keep NAIS voluntary. Linking NAIS to the School Lunch program is another inappropriate tactic to coerce farmers into the program.

Judith McGeary, Texas livestock farmer and president of the Farm and Ranch Freedom Alliance which has tracked state opposition against the NAIS program, said, “Once the public outcry made it clear that a mandatory NAIS was unacceptable, USDA and state agencies started calling the program ‘voluntary’ while simultaneously using a variety of coercive tactics to register people, from data mining to denying disaster relief to requiring it of children at state fairs. With over a dozen state bills introduced to reject a mandatory NAIS, and four states having adopted such bills, Congress still has not gotten the message that farmers are rejecting their heavy handed tactics under the false pretense of food safety.”

America’s children deserve to have access to the highest quality meat. Forcing school districts to purchase meat from sources enrolled in the NAIS will ultimately mean fewer options for our schools and more reliance on industrial meat produced under lax environmental and health standards by those who value profits over our children’s safety. The House Appropriations Committee and Congress should examine seriously the implications of such a far-reaching proposal in light of the growing demand for sustainable, local food sources.

###

For more information, contact:
Shae Dodson, R-CALF USA (406) 672-8969
Jack Kittredge, NOFA/Mass (978) 355-2853
Irene Lin, National Family Farm Coalition (202) 543-5675
Judith McGeary, Farm and Ranch Freedom Alliance (512) 243-9404