November 2006

Ag producers decry proposed ID system

By Barbara Westmoreland

DERYK CAMERON VACCINATES A COW AT THE LIVESTOCK AUCTIONUnnecessary, intrusive and expensive — those are some of the nicer things Four Corner agricultural producers, especially cattlemen, are saying about the USDA’s new plan for a National Animal Identification System (NAIS).

”It’ll break us. It’s senseless,” said Montezuma County rancher Johnny Green.

The goal of the NAIS is to establish a 15-digit tag on every animal, a sevendigit “premise” number for every ranch or farm, and a database that will enable “traceback” of a diseased animal within 48 hours to its birth herd. All of this is to be mandatory by a specified date.

The USDA began to plan NAIS in 2002 and rolled out the “NAIS Draft Strategic Plan” on May 6, 2005. Foreign disease outbreaks such as BSE (mad cow) and foot-and-mouth disease in the United Kingdom, and the highly contagious avian influenza in Asia (which spread to Africa and Europe) were the primary motivation.

A case of BSE in the United States in December 2003, and the possibility of animal-disease terrorism after 9/11, were in the back story as well.

The USDA wants to have the NAIS number also identify the age of the animal, especially cattle, because BSE shows up only in older animals. For the export market, Japan now specifies beef no older than 20 months; the limit is 30 months in many other countries.

Although the original “NAIS Draft Strategic Plan” claimed to have been developed through “listening sessions” with industry and producers, apparently officials had not reached down to the grassroots level in places such as Montezuma County. The outcry from small producers all over the country was immediate. Protest groups sprouted on the Internet (NoNAIS, Stop Animal ID.org, Liberty Ark Coalition), joining established organizations to express concern. No agricultural meeting went without a gripe session, and members of Congress began to receive messages from a grassroots “defund NAIS totally” campaign.

In April 2006, the USDA issued “A Guide for Small-Scale or Non- Commercial Producers” to address the concerns of the smallest ranches and farmsteads. No, the agency said, they hadn’t meant dogs and cats. And no, they didn’t mean animals who never left their birth home or just got slaughtered for family food. You could still ride your horse in the parade or on a trail and enter your chicken in the county fair without a tag.

But if your animal ever went to a sale barn or a state fair, or was slaughtered to sell the meat, requirements for tagging, premise registration and reporting of movements remained the same. The USDA set up study groups to pick the type of tag for each species.

The cattle study group chose a tamperproof RFID (radio frequency ID) tag — insisting on, and getting, assurance that the database would be privately held and not subject to the federal Freedom of Information Act.

The USDA began to hedge about the mandatory requirements for tagging and premise registration contained in the original proposal. NAIS would be voluntary, at least for a while.

So, where do animal owners currently stand? Premise registration is now available in all states; the database for registering animal tags will be ready by January 2007, and all newborn animals are to be tagged by January 2009.

Cost estimates are missing in all the USDA public information so far. Initially, animal owners feared they would need to invest several thousand dollars in tags, scanners, and computers (to report movement) in order to comply with NAIS.

But Rick Wahlert, deputy division director at the Colorado Brand Inspection Board, said, “The producer just needs a $2 tag for each animal. The number is also printed on an RFID tag, so you can read it without a scanner. The receiver (e.g., a sale barn or packing house) will be responsible for reporting the movement of the animal. There has been some discussion of using Bangs and scrapie numbers during the phase-in period of the program.”

There are already tags and/or brands on a lot of animals for other purposes. All sheep and goats, for instance, are supposed to have a uniquely-numbered tag to allow them to be traced back to the owner if they show evidence of scrapie, a prion disease.

Cattle carry tags with a “Bangs” number showing they’ve been vaccinated against brucellosis (Bangs disease), which can cause cows to abort. All domestic elk herds in Colorado; all llamas that go to shows and about half the dairy cows in the U.S., for milk production management purposes, are also tagged.

In Colorado, the branding requirements include reporting movement of cattle more than 70 miles, which already makes for some trackability.

Opponents of NAIS say it would merely pile on the costs for livestock producers.

“We already brand,” said Green, “and that costs $125 when you register your brand and $125 to use it for five years, and that may go up to $100 a year. They’re going to keep all that and add this NAIS. It’s not an animal thing but who’s got what and how much money.

We’re just losing more freedom.”

The sale barns may bear the brunt of the costs. Judd Suckla, co-owner of Cortez Livestock Auction, said, “NAIS needs to go away. Sale barns will have to spend between $7,000 and $30,000 for a scanner and we will have to pass that expense on to the producers.”

And, he said, scanners don’t read fast enough or with 100 percent accuracy. “Last week, after sheep and horses, we sold 1200 head of cattle between 1:30 and 8:30. We can read brands faster than we could scan. The first thing the USDA needs to do is tell us what it’s going to cost.”

The cost and technology have Doug Zalesky of Hesperus, president of the Colorado Independent Cattlegrowers Association, concerned as well.

“As proposed, the mandatory NAIS is not a workable system,” Zalesky said. “The USDA has never done a cost/benefit analysis. Australian cattlemen say their system costs them $30 a head, when all the costs are passed through.

“When you have to run the cattle multiple times through a chute to get 100 percent of the tags read, you get loss of weight — we call it shrink — and right now the best percentage read I’ve seen is about 60 percent [accuracy on one pass]. The technology is not at the level needed.

“You’d be hard-pressed to find a producer that’s against an animal health traceback system. We’re just against this one.”

Zalesky said the American Animal Health Organization recently recommended looking at the old brucellosis model, which uses a 50-cent ear clip.

“This system is inexpensive and it works,” he said. “Brands need to be incorporated into the new system, whatever it is. And state veterinarians need to be involved in making any system work.”

Veterinarians appreciate the disease-traceback aspects of NAIS but don’t want to see producers burdened with overlapping systems.

“I’m not necessarily against it but it’s how they did it,” said Gerald Koppenhafer, a Mancos veterinarian and a Montezuma County commissioner. “They could have had the veterinarians put on a premise tag when we do the Bangs. We’d have a lot of cattle IDed by now.”

Small producers worry about the loss of privacy as well. The premise registration, either with GPS coordinates or by address, in especially unpopular.

Laurie and Rusty Hall farm Seven Meadows Farm in Montezuma County. They practice sustainable methods and produce organically grown food for the local market. Self-reliance is a major goal for them.

They have a team of Belgians, plus seven other horses, five donkeys, two cows, 15 sheep and some chickens. All these species are included in NAIS and each will have its own type of tag, e.g., injectable microchips, cattle with RFID ear tags, sheep with electronic ID tags. The Halls could conceivably be forced to deal with five different kinds of tags, one type for each species.

“The NAIS is not only an invasion of privacy — it will put many small farmers out of business,” said Laurie Hall. “Some of my neighbors can barely afford gas now. The large corporations are promoting NAIS. It’s just greed hiding behind national-security issues.

“When small, local producers go out of business and the food supply is concentrated in big agriculture, it makes our food supply more vulnerable to terrorism.”

On the other hand, state agencies concerned with getting NAIS running are annoyed at the rural resistance.

John Heller, animal ID coordinator for the Colorado Department of Agriculture Division of Animal Industry (known as the State Vet Board) said, “Canada, Mexico, Argentina, Australia, Brazil are all doing animal ID . . . there are Third World countries doing this and we can’t agree on a system.”

Two conclusions are easy to reach. NAIS isn’t going away. And hammering out a workable plan is going to take a while.