Promoters of national livestock ID plan shift to focus on benefits of global traceability
Resistance to NAIS as integrated mega-database continues as smaller farmers question its cost, benefits and risks compared to improving livestock health at the farm level.

By Amy Shollenberger

editor's NOTE:

Why would farmers who don’t export their livestock and focus on improving the health of their stock rather than detecting disease after the animals reach the market want a new bureaucracy that would cost them money and benefit someone else?

That’s the nub of the ongoing unease in the farm community with the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s plan to have track-back data capacity for every animal on every farm. The department and exporters say they need this capacity to provide global assurances for disease-source detection. Most farmers with on-farm, local and regional markets—and those who already clearly brand everything that leaves their farm, with pride—agree that the system offers them little while costing them much.

To see how its supporters are promoting the concept, its technology and its benefits, Amy Shollenberger of Rural Vermont (a nonprofit supporting local food systems in Vermont and beyond) attended an event this summer. Here she summarizes developments in the past year and reports what she saw.

Keeping NAIS at bay

During one of the question-and-answer sessions toward the end of ID Expo 2007, USDA Undersecretary of Agriculture Bruce Knight admitted, “Far and away the challenge has been earning the respect and trust of the farmers and ranchers that animal ID is about protecting their farm operation, their herd health, about protecting their economic viability. It’s all about serving the needs of the farmers and ranchers.”

It seems, however, that if the USDA were truly interested in serving the needs of farmers and ranchers, it would be less focused on implementing a disease-tracking system like NAIS and more focused on ensuring a viable domestic food system based on animal health and welfare that pays a fair price to farmers who take responsibility for their livestock and the quality of the food they sell–which is what farmers and ranchers have been asking of the USDA for decades.

For those who want to stay out of this program and ensure that it is not implemented, the path forward is unclear. It is difficult to fight a program that technically does not fall under statute or regulation, but is “voluntary” and is being implemented essentially outside the law.

You can:

Be sure that your state and federal representatives and senators know how you feel about NAIS.

Keep your neighbors informed about all the possible paths to NAIS.

Check in with any groups you belong to and make sure they are not assigning PINs to their members.

Talk to your children about the program, and make sure their clubs are not assigning them PINs.

Get your local fair board to adopt a policy that PINs and animal IDs will never be required for fair animals.

Make sure your vet is not using PINs as client numbers.

Talk to your slaughterhouse and make sure they are not shifting toward a NAIS system.

Write letters to the editor.

Also, remember that at some point we have to shift the paradigm completely. Buckminster Fuller once said, “You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.”

Make sure your animals are supremely healthy and your processes produce pure food. Sell products in direct markets. Get to know your customers. Build local food systems. These are the actions that will make NAIS impossible to even imagine for family farmers because it provides no additional value to a system that already works so well.

~ A.S.

Other voices

Barnyard Boom or Bust?
By Michael Pakko, research officer, Federal Reserve Bank in St. Louis

USDA's NAIS homepage
Supporting documents for premises registration, animal identification, animal tracing, cooperating entities and links to state programs.

Family Farm Defenders
Resources outlining concerns about NAIS and proposing alternative policies to improve livestock safety.

Posted November 16, 2007: “Traceability” was the focus of ID Expo 2007, the National Institute for Animal Agriculture’s annual conference and trade show on the National Animal Identification System (NAIS). Held in Kansas City in August, the expo featured government officials and industry representatives touting their software, microchips and other technologies.

Noticeably absent (or at least silent) were farmers and ranchers, who were the target for the still-controversial goal of registering all producer locations (“premises”) and all livestock in the United States in a unified database.

Rocky road so far

NAIS has been on the minds of the attendees of this conference for several years. It was introduced in a big way to farmers across the country in April 2006, with the NAIS Implementation Guide. This booklet outlined the timeline the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) hoped to follow for the implementation of a mandatory identification system for all domestic livestock. Their goals included 100-percent premises identification and all new (born in the past year) animals identified by the end of 2008, as well as 60-percent of animal movement recorded by January 2009.

These goals were met with many levels of resistance, however, from lawsuits against the USDA by farmers to solid opposition to proposed state regulations attempted to implement NAIS. In some states, such as Vermont, Maine and Texas, farm groups and activists were able to stop proposed state rulemakings that would have implemented mandatory premises registration–the first phase of NAIS–while in other states, anti-NAIS activists worked to have their state legislatures enact laws that attempted to prohibit the state’s participation in the NAIS.

To counter this resistance, the USDA published a new user guide in 2006 and declared that the NAIS would be voluntary. The Senate Agriculture committee is considering a measure stating that all NAIS data would be confidential—to assure some states that had voiced privacy concerns—but allowing the Secretary of Agriculture some discretion to disclose information.

In addition to the new user guide, the USDA entered into cooperative agreements with states to encourage individual participation in the voluntary NAIS program. States were given federal money to get farmers signed up for the NAIS. The USDA reports that it has entered into cooperative agreements with 49 states, distributing approximately $50.8 million for this purpose, as of the end of fiscal year 2006.

Resistance limits impact, so far

In July 2007, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) published a report on NAIS titled, USDA Needs to Resolve Several Key Implementation Issues to Achieve Rapid and Effective Disease Traceback. As the title suggests, the GAO found several problems with NAIS, and made several recommendations. Essentially, the report says that NAIS is not currently working because there is not enough participation in the program.

Further, the GAO recommends that a cost-benefit analysis be done to determine whether NAIS is really providing enough benefits to justify the costs associated with the program (see sidebar). The GAO also recommended that the USDA prioritize species and diseases in order to focus their efforts within the NAIS program.

The USDA’s response to the GAO report was evident at this summer’s ID Expo 2007. The presenters reported that the USDA’s new focus will be on “traceability” and “achieving a critical mass of participation” in order to increase the effectiveness of the NAIS program. In addition, the USDA will focus on disease programs, and prioritize this focus by species.

The approach will be two-fold. First, the USDA will begin assigning premises identification numbers (PINs) to producers through the disease programs. Dr. John Clifford, of the USDA’s Animal Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) Veterinary Services (VS) department indicated that the objective is to establish a nationally uniform identification system to support animal disease prevention and management programs. “Animal health is the focus,” he said.

Clifford indicated that the essential strategies are to take advantage of existing programs, increase participation beyond the disease programs, and to integrate NAIS data standards. He noted that the USDA is developing a business plan, which will be published soon, to develop strategies to maximize traceability, saying the plan will focus on species sectors, such as poultry and sheep.

USDA admits: “Long way to go.”

Clifford explained the process the USDA will use to integrate NAIS into all disease programs by standardizing the PINs. Clifford wrapped up by saying, “I think we’ve made a lot of progress over time, but I think we have a long way to go.”

A producer will not “officially” be registered in the NAIS database; however, the producer will have an assigned PIN that is compatible with NAIS. This means that if an “outbreak event” occurs, the USDA can get access to the disease databases and subsequently “sync” the premises location data with the USDA’s other information in order to find all of the farms that are registered through the disease programs.

Dr. John Wiemers, from USDA’s APHIS Veterinary Services, noted that there will be two tiers of priorities. He explained, “The tier-one species include the major food producing groups, such as cattle, swine, commercial poultry, sheep and goats. It also includes the competition sector of the equine species. The balance of the species are found in the tier two sector.”

Wiemers explained the rationale for the tiered sectors, saying it was “to more clearly focus on enhancing the traceability in the areas of the greatest value.” Wiemers noted that within the Tier One sector, there is further classification of high, medium, and low risk. He also noted that ovine (sheep) are a low risk because this species is already pretty traceable. However, in the next presentation, Dr. David Morris, also of USDA APHIS Veterinary Services, said that in order to reach the “critical mass,” the USDA will focus on sheep because it will be possible to achieve close to 90-percent traceability “by leveraging the Scrapie Eradication Program.”

Expanding to non-profit groups

The second part of the USDA’s new approach is to expand its cooperative agreement program to “non-profit organizations” such as clubs, trade groups and breed associations, to “encourage producer participation” in the NAIS program. The USDA will give grants to these organizations in exchange for the organizations’ assigning PINs to their members. One recent cooperative agreement that received some recognition is with the national FFA (formerly known as the Future Farmers of America), an organization for high school vocational agriculture students and these alumni as young adults. This $600,000 collaboration includes five parts, including general and state-specific educational materials, coverage in the FFA’s national publications and TV show, and recognition for participating chapters.

In response to the GAO’s complaint that there have not been enough accountability measures implemented with the cooperative agreements, the USDA has said it will distribute the grants in stages, requiring the groups to meet incremental goals for getting so many producers assigned PINs before receiving the next stage of their funding.

In addition to these strategies, the USDA is focusing on “communication and education,” believing that if producers can see the value in registering for NAIS, they will be less resistant to it. A clear theme of ID Expo 2007 was “value for the producer,” with several presentations referring to this alleged value. However, the presenters were hard-pressed to actually show any value to producers.

During a presentation titled “Traceability/Value Creation,” Lance Storer of Cargill Meat Solutions indicated that he is in favor of a voluntary identification system. He said he believes source verification is the added value of the NAIS for producers, as the claim cannot be made unless it is can be verified, and that there is currently no USDA definition for this claim. Storer said that you can sell a story through source verification to one particular importer, who can then sell it to a single customer. In other words, the value of NAIS to the marketer of commodity meat is that you can claim you know where the meat came from.

The trade show messages at ID Expo 2007 showed examples of how states are trying to encourage producers to register their premises. Nebraska’s Department of Agriculture had a booth dedicated to its communication plan, called, “Locate in 48: 48-Hour Disease Traceback.” At the booth, visitors could pick up a copy of a media training kit offered by the department, as well as materials intended for producers. A full-color glossy flyer encourages producers to “Get your free flashlight!” by registering their premises.

Another item visitors to the Nebraska booth could pick up was a bag of microwave popcorn with a refrigerator magnet inside. This magnet has a photo of a few cattle standing together. One of the animals is facing the viewer, with both ears displaying ear tags. An arrow points to this animal, and the magnet reads, “This animal could help maximize your profits. How can you better connect to the global marketplace?”

Below, it says, “Take the first step. Register your premises today.”