FOOD & FUEL
On June 1, four days before the seventh and final “listening session” was held, gathering producer comments on the National Animal Identification System, U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack announced USDA would host six additional meetings for the public “to voice their concerns about the current NAIS system and offer potential solutions.”
The extra meetings are either a master stroke by a shrewd political operator or a bureaucratic blunder by a Washington, D.C. rookie.
Master stroke because Vilsack, an early and ardent supporter of NAIS, heard nothing good about national animal ID since taking his (presumably ear-tagged and registered) dog-and-pony show on the road May 14.
Wherever it went – Pennsylvania, Kentucky, Washington State, Texas – producer after producer greeted it with anger and derision. Most used their three minutes of microphone fame to condemn NAIS as unnecessary, unworkable and unAmerican.
Detractors easily outnumbered backers, who were mostly masters of the vertical integration universe, such as meatpackers and their lackeys.
Given the widespread hostility to NAIS by everyone except the 50 or so pork powers left in the national pork producers club and the well-marbled lobbyists at the American Meat Institute, what would you do if you were Vilsack?
Exactly. Announce six more meetings to gather six more buckets of venom to take back to Congress to say, “Hey, you city slicker goofballs, either fix this program or the White House is outa’ here.”
Then again, Vilsack may be agriculturall, and Congressionally, naive enough to truly believe he can fix a deeply flawed, corporate farm-favoring program if enough ag insiders sit around a table and split hairs.
In fact, he said almost exactly that during his personal NAIS meeting April 15 at USDA with some of ag’s biggest Capitol Hill suits.
After noting his “unshaken belief that when reasonable people get around the table” to discuss problems “oftentimes creative solutions arise,” two hours of stern, frank objections to NAIS that morning delivered nothing new for Vilsack to hang any hope on.
And nothing is precisely what most farmers and ranchers want to do with mandatory, national animal ID. Its flaws are as wide and deep as its unknowns. The biggest are the most obvious.
While mandatory animal identification is endlessly sold to lawmakers and consumers as a key element in new food safety regulations, producers have repeatedly pointed out that NAIS only tracks trouble after it occurs; it doesn’t prevent it. As such, it is not a food safety tool as much as a liability-assigning tool and no farmer wants a new expressway built between him and the federal courthouse.
Also, NAIS is being sold as an export-enhancing program U.S. meat producers need to compete in the ever-hyped global marketplace.
At the listening sessions, however, producers condemned that reasoning by pointing out that years of export-enhancing legislation had thinned their ranks by millions even as it fattened corporate profits by billions.
Even worse, wondered session goers, as American animal agriculture suffers through one of its worst years ever, Congress and USDA continue to push a program producers neither want nor can afford.
An April cost-benefit analysis of NAIS estimated first-year implementation costs between $145 million and $228 million, money producers claim they simply don’t have.
Still unknown, too, is how NAIS would be enforced and what the penalties for non-compliance might be.
In short, NAIS remains a mess and Congress should know this because years of selling by agbiz and $120 million in backdoor implementation by USDA, have encouraged just 35 percent of livestock owners to register their premises, the first step in NAIS.
As such, if anyone is actually listening at USDA’s sessions they’d hear that unless NAIS is fixed, it will be forgotten.
Guebert is a syndicated columnist from Delavan, Ill. Reach him by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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