SALEM, Ohio — Dissent and disagreement within the agricultural community about the future of the national animal identification program came through loud and clear during Congressional hearings last week.
Animal identification, lauded by some farm groups as absolutely necessary to protect the food supply and criticized by others as a flawed program that will threaten farmers’ livelihoods, was debated before a House agriculture subcommittee March 11.
The House Agriculture Subcommittee on Livestock, Dairy, and Poultry heard testimony that battled both sides of the issue.
Subcommittee chair David Scott of Georgia told those in attendance that his personal belief was that the National Animal Identification System was “necessary” and “carries with it many benefits for producers, processors, and consumers,” including measures to keep livestock protected from disease outbreaks.
Scott also said the system could save the government money while maintaining food supply safety.
Livestock commodity groups, including the National Pork Producers Council and IDairy, a coalition of six U.S. dairy organizations, said a national identification system would help keep American farms viable and urged Congress to support and fund the initiative.
Of specific interest to both groups were federal and state disease surveillance abilities, which they admitted would work only if and when all animals and herds are identified in a central, national database.
Nationally, since 2005, some 75 percent of dairy producers have voluntarily registered their premises to participate in NAIS. In many states, including New York and Pennsylvania, more than 90 percent of dairy herds have signed up, according to IDairy. However, the industry has admitted that until NAIS becomes mandatory, getting the last 25 percent to participate will be difficult.
“The system is only as strong as its weakest link. Now is the time for Congress and USDA to work together to make mandatory animal ID a reality,” said North Carolina dairy producer and veterinarian Karen Jordan during House testimony.
In 1988, the U.S. pork industry established a swine ID system, which helped eradicate pseudorabies from the commercial herd. Through 2008, NPPC and the National Pork Board had registered about 80 percent of U.S. hog farms.
At the same time, a coalition of family farmers, independent ranchers and consumer groups gave a completely different picture of the system.
Groups such as R-CALF USA, the Farm and Ranch Freedom Alliance and Farm-to-Consumer Legal Defense Fund pointed to NAIS as a fundamentally flawed program whose costs pose a real threat to farmer livelihoods and will produce no benefits for consumers or food safety.
“The subcommittee failed to even acknowledge that four states have already adopted laws barring a mandatory NAIS program, and three more states currently have bills filed to do the same thing,” testified Judith McGeary, a Texas livestock farmer and president of the Farm and Ranch Freedom Alliance.
“The state legislators are listening to what their constituents are saying: NAIS will not improve food safety or animal health, but it will impose significant costs on family farmers.”
The Farm-to-Consumer Legal Defense Fund said the hearing was stacked in favor of groups calling for the program’s mandatory implementation.
“There was virtually no representation for organic and local producers or consumers, the very groups that are most negatively affected by NAIS,” said Pete Kennedy, acting president of the fund, in a prepared statement.
Opposition groups also highlighted their concerns about the program’s ability to protect farmers’ private information.
“It has become increasingly clear that the protection of our constituents’ proprietary information needs to be a greater concern for USDA, and they have not made a convincing argument that the capability of protecting that information exists today,” said Randy Neugebauer, ranking member of the subcommittee, in a media statement following the hearing.
“Many of the witnesses made a strong case that the benefits of a mandatory animal ID system do not measure up to the costs for such a system,” he said.
The USDA established the National Animal Identification System in 2004. However, a series of missteps, misinformation from groups opposed to it and, now, a lack of federal funding, have hampered implementation of the system.
USDA admitted that despite over $130 million spent on NAIS, barely one-third of producers have chosen to register in the past five years.
“After five years of throwing over $100 million at a voluntary system, we are still in pretty much the same place,” said ag committee chairman Collin Peterson of Minnesota.
“Even worse, many of the crucial aspects of the program show little promise of ever being substantially implemented. Agency staff have told us that the program as currently structured would never be effective in providing the country with a reliable trace-back system. The stakeholders out there need to get together and resolve their differences.”