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USDA Bets the Farm on Animal ID Program | The Nation

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USDA Bets the Farm on Animal ID Program

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Agribusiness Versus the Family Farm

About the Author

David E. Gumpert
David E. Gumpert is a writer specializing in health and business. He covers nutrition and food issues at his blog.
William Pentland
William Pentland is a fall 2007 Nation intern.

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Small farmers and ranchers share the USDA's concerns about animal diseases, and some say they might even support NAIS if they believed it would stop the spread of dangerous diseases that have emerged in the past decade. But many worry that NAIS will have the opposite effect. Factory farms are fertile breeding grounds for dangerous new pathogens. The food-borne pathogen responsible for the spinach recall in 2006 and ground-beef illnesses this year originated in feedlots.

The risk of epidemics that spread between animals and humans has grown primarily because of the "inappropriate use of antibiotic drugs," which has fostered the evolution of "resistant forms of bacterial disease," according to a 2006 report by the Center for American Progress. An estimated 70 percent of antibiotic usage occurs in agriculture.

Considering how much noise owners of small farms and ranches are making, they haven't had much of an impact. Their biggest gain may have been the victory in the 2006 Missouri Senate campaign by Democrat Claire McCaskill over Jim Talent. McCaskill opposed NAIS while Talent supported aggressive implementation of it and attracted more money from agribusiness than any other candidate that year. Missouri farmers say McCaskill's position on NAIS was decisive.

But the issue has not raised much interest in Congress. The proposed five-year $289 billion farm bill focuses mostly on subsidies and disaster aid. The only reference to NAIS in the farm bill is a provision that exempts NAIS data from Freedom of Information Act coverage and imposes potential criminal penalties on those who publish NAIS data.

Nebulous details about how NAIS will work have exacerbated resistance to it. According to USDA and state descriptions of the program, farmers will need to keep special records of their animals and update them whenever an animal leaves the farm. Informal arrangements that have long been part of traditional farming--such as trading a cow for a used piece of machinery--must now be reported to the government.

NAIS allows large factory farms whose animals spend their entire lives in feedlots to register large groups of animals as a single unit, but farms whose animals are not confined must register animals individually. As a result, most small farms could pay as much as $20 or $30 per animal to comply with NAIS, compared with $1 to $2 per animal for large farms.

"People don't realize that they're going to have to tag every single chicken," says Gail Damerow, a Tennessee farmer who is editor of Rural Heritage magazine. "When you look at the cost of a chicken or goat and the cost of a tag, it's not going to work economically." Indeed, if the radio frequency tags cost $2 for a chicken that sells for $3 or $4, the thin margins that keep most small farms afloat will vanish.

Then there's the pesky matter of who will control the massive databases with farm and animal information. Although government officials say the tags will only include a limited scope of information related to animal location and movements, the government apparently does not have access to all the data collected under the NAIS program. The GAO report cited as a major flaw the USDA's inability to access information essential for traceability purposes. The USDA has transferred control of the databases to more than a dozen private companies--AgInfoLink, Micro Beef Technologies, iSavent, Global Animal Management, GlobalVetLink and several others. Several of these companies belong to the NIAA consortium that pushed NAIS and most of those that don't have close relationships with consortium members.

"We can all spend time talking about who are the three guys sitting in a room trying to get rid of all the independent farmers," said attorney Karin Bergener. "Or we can try to understand that...a great confluence of interests is behind this thing.... Large corporations want to import or export without having to deal with anything like a quarantine at the borders. Microchip companies have pretty well maxed out their market in Europe for these reprogrammable chips. State bureaucracies need more money from the USDA, and the USDA, which has had its budget cut over the years, will get an astonishing amount of money from running this program. So you have these groups who are having their needs addressed by the program, and the problem is that nobody outside of those groups is involved in the decision-making process."

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