I’m really not quite sure what’s going on with this. According to an editorial written by farmer Shannon Hayes, published a couple of weeks ago in the New York Times, a plan currently being considered at the USDA would require farmers to tag livestock born on their farms, and report their whereabouts via computer to the USDA so that in the case of a disease outbreak, the regulatory agency would then be able to quickly determine which animals have been exosed to diseased animals, thereby increasing the USDA’s efficiency in battling disease.
Obviously, as consumers, we don’t want diseased animals in our meat markets–but as Ms. Hayes points out, a small family farm where the livestock have plenty of room to roam and enjoy a high standard of living are going to be less likely to get ill–and if family farmers are priced out of the program, that will just lead to an even higher percentage of meat available to us coming from concentrated animal feeding operations, where thousands of head are packed together in areas barely large enough to hold them.
The thing is, according to information I could find on the USDA’s website, though, this is a purely voluntary program. I can find no reference to mandatory participation. But then again, the USDA website has so many layers and sublayers that it’s quite possible I just haven’t found a key piece of information that would say otherwise.
Here are some links from the USDA’s own information about what the program seeks to do.
|Q. Am I required by law to register my premises?|
|A. NAIS is a voluntary program at the Federal level. You are not required by USDA to register your premises. Individual States may choose to keep premises registration voluntary or not, based on local needs. USDA strongly believes that the best approach to premises registration is a voluntary system led by the States.|
|Q. What is animal identification?|
|A. Animal identification is the second component of the voluntary NAIS. Whether individual or group/lot, animal identification provides producers with a uniform numbering system for identifying their animals. The individual animal identification number (AIN) is unique and stays with the animal for its lifetime. This number links the animal to its premises of origin; when combined with animal tracing, the AIN also links the animal to each premises/location that has been reported for it.|
|Animal identification offers a valuable tool for producers and owners whose animals enter commercial production, or move to locations where they come into contact with animals from multiple/other premises.|
|Q. Am I required to participate in animal identification if I choose to register my premises?|
|A. No. Choosing to register your premises does not obligate you to participate in the other components of NAIS.|
|Q. Does NAIS allow for animals to be identified as a group?|
|A. If your animals “stay together” and are raised as a group, and travel through the production chain that way, you may want to consider group/lot identification, rather than individual identification. When animals “stay together” as a group, individual identification of each animal in the group is not necessary because it does not enhance disease response efforts.|
Obviously, the information above does not rule out mandatory participation on a state-by-state-basis even as it demonstrates how lot registration would be a less-expensive alternative for factory-style operations–but there is no indication that a national requirement is intended. Moreover, the following information (from thae same link as above) indicates that many smaller farms would not be included in the program, based on the fact that their animals are not shipped from one location to another during the course of their lives:
|For example, the following situations are not applicable to NAIS:|
That having been said, the NY Times Op-Ed piece refers to a House Subcommittee hearing on March 10. However, the USDA’s NAIS web newsroom provides no information about any such hearing; their most recent posting having been made on January 12, 2009. That update does refer to proposed changes to the program, but only inasmuch as the numbering system would be altered.
That article does say that the goal of the program is to increase the level of participation:
In the NAIS business plan, which outlines the program’s goals and strategies for the next 3-5 years, the immediate focus is on increasing the quantity of animals identified and traceable to their premises of origin, especially in the sectors with the lowest existing traceability levels, namely cattle. These proposed amendments are the next step in the development of a nationally integrated, modern animal disease response system. With a standardized system of numbering and use of uniform tags across USDA’s animal disease programs and the NAIS, animal health officials will be better equipped to locate and trace diseased and exposed animals during an animal health event. Obtaining this information quickly will significantly minimize the spread of the disease and its impact on producers.
Updates: I received a call back from Joelle Schelhaus. The business plan I referred to previously is the Agriculture Marketing Services business plan. The actual NAIS business plan is a 90 + page behemoth chock full of information about the plans for the program over the next several years.
All indications about the program are that it should remain voluntary, even as the USDA seeks to increase participation in it. In his testimony to the House subcommittee on agrigulture, Dr. John R. Clifford, D.V.M., Deputy Administrator, Veterinary Services, Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, U.S. Department of Agriculture, Washington, D.C. , reports current participation at approximately 35 percent, and reports a desire on the part of the USDA to have participation as high as 90 percent within several years. However, according to all indications I can find, most small family farms would continue to remain somewhat separate from the livestock production industry as a whole based on the fact that their livestock does not leave the premises where it was born. Full testimony from the House hearing of March 10 can be found here; scroll down to March 10—testimony is listed in chronological order.
Obviously, I’m in no position to make any guarantees about the USDA’s intentions or future actions, but if the program follows its apparent current track of seeking to monitor the movements of livestock imprisoned in feedlots whilst allowing smaller operations where the livestock have better living conditions the freedom to continue their practices without additional regulation or reporting expenditures, I believe that this program could be quite valuable inasmuch as it could help to demonstrate how unhealthful the living conditions in the concentrated animal feeding operations are. With any luck, the information gathered could conceivably be used to one day legislate a minimum standard in terms of space per head in order to reduce the possibility of disease among confined animals.
No guarantees, of course, but at this point, I am cautiously optimistic that this program could lead to positive changes in the way our beef and pork makes its way from the farm to our plates.
However, the NAIS business plan that it refers to as outlining goals for the next 3-5 years is only a 2-page document that lists action items only through 2008, with the year “2009″ appearing nowhere on the document.
In an effort to clear up some of the confusion, I placed a call to the contact person listed on the NAIS newsroom page, Joelle Schelhaus, requesting clarification of the allegations about mandatory participation as made in the NY Times Op-Ed piece and requesting more information about the House subcommittee hearing of March 10. She had no information immediately available, but said that she would seek to have someone return my query sometime today.