Perspectives from the National Animal ID Expo

by Judith McGeary

This article was initially published in the October 2006 edition of Rural Heritage magazine.

As opposition to the National Animal Identification System (NAIS) has grown, government and industry officials have tried to reassure livestock owners that the program is not as bad as we think it is, using glossy brochures and reassuring press releases. Yet both the government and industry PR materials frequently contradict the more detailed official documents and leave major questions unanswered.

The National Institute for Animal Agriculture (NIAA) is the trade organization that developed the plans for NAIS, building on industry efforts that date back to the late 1980s. So the recent NIAA Animal ID Expo provided a great opportunity to understand some of the contradictions and gaps in the PR. The USDA – using our tax dollars – was a platinum sponsor ($10,000 or more) of this posh conference, which was also sponsored by technology companies and large agri-businesses such as Tri-Merit/Global Animal Management, Allflex, Cattle Network.com, and Cargill.

So let’s look at just some of the PR statements and how they compare to the reality. This is not a comprehensive analysis of the misleading and incomplete statements made by the government and industry – that would take an encyclopedia!

Premises registration: is it really voluntary?

USDA’s “Guide for Small-Scale and Non-Commercial Producers” repeatedly talks about how the NAIS is “voluntary” and “market-driven.” At the ID Expo, Secretary Johanns repeated this theme in his talk. A reporter asked how the USDA could claim the program was voluntary, when several states have already implemented, or proposed implementing, mandatory premises registration. After all, how voluntary is it when you face $1,000 fine and the loss of your business license for not signing up?

And what about those states that are taking people’s information out of other programs, such as the scrapie or tuberculosis programs, and simply rolling it in “batches” into the national database? Johanns, with the skill of a born politician, gave a long answer that boiled down to: the states can implement mandatory programs or “batch uploading” if they want to, and the USDA will put the information into the national database.

I asked a follow-up question: What about funding? Johanns proudly discussed how the USDA has provided millions of dollars to the states to implement NAIS. He completely avoided the issue that providing federal tax dollars to a cash-strapped state agriculture department might lead it to implement a mandatory program.

And federal tax dollars are not the only thing encouraging states to implement mandatory programs. The USDA’s April 2006 Strategies document stated that every animal owner in this country must participate: “To have a successful animal disease management program, all producers and affected industry segments will have to participate eventually.” The USDA established a January 2009 deadline to have 100% of premises registered and 100% of all animals under the age of 1 year identified, with the remainder of the program to be phased in.

The USDA also stated: “If participation rates are not adequate, the development of regulations through normal rulemaking procedures will be considered to require participation in certain aspects of the program.” In other words, while there are no federal regulations at this time, USDA keeps the threat of such regulations hanging over our heads. How many state officials are implementing mandatory programs or using unfair methods for registering people’s premises because of this federal threat?

Animal Identification and Tracking

Many people focus on the animal identification and tracking portions of NAIS because of the amount of time and money that will undoubtedly be required. So it is also where the government and industry have focused their reassuring PR.

Raising food for yourself

The government and industry officials have repeatedly made statements implying that people raising food for themselves will not have to identify or track their animals. But a closer look shows that the reality is quite different.

The actual exemption in the USDA’s Guide for Small Producers does not actually cover most people raising their own food. Rather, it creates an exemption for animals that are born on the property, never leave the property, and are taken off only for custom slaughter for personal consumption. In practical terms, this exception is meaningless. The vast majority of individuals who raise food for themselves buy young animals, such as baby chicks or weaned calves, from other sources. Maintaining a breeding herd or flock is expensive and time-consuming, and not feasible for most individuals to do just for personal consumption. Almost every small farmer or homesteader buys a few animals, whether at a sales barn or from a neighbor, and sells a few. This exemption is only relevant for government bureaucrats who have never raised their own food.

The working group presentations at the ID Expo reinforced just how narrow this exemption really is. The speaker for the Cattle Working Group stated that cattle will have to be electronically identified and tracked whenever an animal is sold, even by private treaty. Cattle will also have to be electronically identified and tracked when multiple owners commingle their animals including commercial transport, joint grazing agreements, rodeos, and fairs. The Working Group also noted that animals that are born on your property, never leave your property, and die on your property may still need to be “officially identified as a condition of acceptance” at a rendering plant. So don’t forget to put that electronic tag on your cow’s ear and file the paperwork, before you call the renderer!

Group Identification

To further reassure animal owners, government and industry statements have repeatedly mentioned that animals may be identified with “group or lot” identification under certain circumstances. So what are those circumstances?

The USDA’s 2005 Draft Program Standards states that group ID is available when animals are managed together from birth to death and not commingled with animals from outside their production chain. At the ID Expo, the Swine Working Group shed light on this definition. Federal regulations define a swine production enterprise as being “by ownership or contractual relationships, between which swine move while remaining under the control of a single owner or a group of contractually connected owners.” In other words, if you are a contract farmer for a large company that effectively controls the animals from birth to death, you are within the production chain. But if not, then you will have to individually identify your animals.

The Poultry Working Group’s presentation at the ID Expo was even clearer, admitting explicitly that group identification for poultry was “mainly for commercial poultry.” So the backyard flock, the pastured poultry operations, the heritage breeding operations, will all be faced with individually identifying each bird.

Horses

The Equine Species Working Group (ESWG) released a glossy brochure in April 2006, reassuring people that they would not have to report trail rides and local shows. But in both 2004 and 2005 the ESWG submitted recommendations to the USDA that provided for tracking every time a horse was taken off the premises: “When horses are transported interstate, intrastate when commingled with other horses or livestock, or to premises or events where a Certificate of Veterinary Inspection (CVI) or other equine health papers such as Coggins are required, the movement must be reported to the appropriate USDA NAIS database(s).” So when the ESWG released its brochure, filled with lovely color photos, the ESWG’s PR directly contradicted its own official recommendations.

Months after releasing the brochure, the ESWG releases revised recommendations, which now recommend that equine movements not be reported to databases. But it continues to recommend that horses be subject to the first two stages of NAIS: premises registration and animal identification. It also continues to recommend that horse owners be required to use a specific type of microchip for that identification.

At the Animal ID Expo, the co-chair of the ESWG stated that the latest recommendations for no reporting are not consistent with NAIS. She also stated that the states could impose additional requirements, simply by increasing the number of places where health certificates or other documents are required. Interestingly, the Cattle Working Group specifically listed exhibitions and rodeos as being reportable events for cattle. Does anyone really believe that cattle owners will have to report every rodeo, but that horse owners will avoid this burdensome and expensive requirement, especially when they are subject to the first two stages of NAIS?

For years, the ESWG stood by its recommendations that required reporting of every show, trail ride, trip to the vet or breeding facility, or essentially any other movement of a horse off one’s property. Now that they have chosen to change their position, there is no guarantee that they will not simply flip back to their original plan as soon as the public outcry has subsided. Indeed, when I asked about the reason for the change in the recommendations, Ms. Mann responded that the ESWG had realized what a negative effect reporting would have on the equine industry. It took them 2 years to realize that horse owners might object to having to report every show, vet visit, and trail ride? Perhaps the industry representatives need to be reminded that their PR should at least be believable.

Costs

At the ID Expo, many people repeatedly asked about whether a cost analysis has been done. Some officials avoided the question entirely, while others responded that an analysis had not been done because the plans weren’t complete enough. In other words, the 22-page Draft Plan and 34-page Program Standards published in 2005, as the result of 3 years of intensive work building on a decade of industry planning, are sufficient to justify spending tens of millions of tax dollars, but not enough for a basic cost analysis. Is this how the government ends up spending $20,000 for a hammer?

One industry claim is that RFID tags will be sold for $2.75, and that that will include “lifetime reporting.” This is a very confusing claim, especially when one considers that the total costs for the program in other countries has been reported as ranging anywhere from $37/head to $69/head. A conversation with one of the board members of the U.S. Animal Identification Organization (USAIO) cleared the confusion up. USAIO was created in 2006 by Farm Bureau, National Cattlemens Association, and others, to manage the “industry-led animal movement database.”

Apparently, USAIO’s plan is to develop contracts with slaughterhouses and sales barns to fund part of the cost of the databases. So, instead of paying for reports when you file, you will indirectly be paying for them whenever you take an animal for processing or sale. And whatever shortfall is not covered by the levies on the tags and services will presumably be made up in our tax dollars.

In discussing costs, we should not overlook the fact that the need for individual tracking of every movement means that one form of identification is not enough. After all, what happens if you have 50 cows, and 5 of them lose their tags? How would you know which one was which, to report the new tag numbers? The Cattle Working Group’s answer is that producers should use a second visible tag as a cross-reference. So how much will buying both tags and keeping both sets of records cost you?

What You Can Do

The government and industry officials have spent over a decade developing their plans for NAIS. The grassroots movement opposing NAIS started to gain momentum just this year, and has a long way to go. The government’s PR materials issued over the last year are designed to undermine the opposition, so that they can proceed with their plans. If we want to stop it, we have to do more!

Writing your state legislators and Congressmen is a great first step. You can multiply your effectiveness by helping to build a bigger grassroots movement. Hand copies of this article or other information about NAIS to your neighbors. Put stacks of flyers at your local feed stores and auction barns. Help to organize a local meeting and bring in a speaker. You can get materials and information at both www.libertyark.net and www.farmandranchfreedom.org.

And vote with your pocketbook. If you belong to an organization that is supporting NAIS, take your membership elsewhere, to an organization that is opposing it. Patronize local farms and businesses who are also speaking out against this program. Make your money work for you! After all, what will it cost you if the government implements NAIS?

*Judith McGeary is an attorney in Austin, Texas, and the Executive Director of the Farm and Ranch Freedom Alliance. She has a B.S. in Biology from Stanford University and a J.D. with high honors from The University of Texas at Austin. She began her legal career by clerking for the U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals. Since then, her practice has focused on environmental law, commercial litigation, and appeals. She and her husband run a small farm with horses, cattle, sheep, and poultry.