NAIS: at what cost will the government track farm animals?

Though interest in sustainable and organic farming and agricultural practices is at an all time high, many farmers and ranchers involved in small-scale animal husbandry and dairy production are facing a very real, very bureaucratic challenge in the form of a new US Department of Agriculture initiative, the National Animal Identification System (NAIS). NAIS is a centralized, high-tech tracking system that would enable the tracing of any, and potentially all, farm animals in the country with an electronic tagging and registration system.

The stated goal of this program is to monitor and track potential disease outbreaks with the ability to identify all potentially contaminated livestock and premises within 48 hours of discovery. Yet the program is conceptually flawed and overly invasive. It will not track meat all the way from the barn to the table, so there will be no real consumer protection from diseased meat. Moreover, the program allows for no exceptions or exemptions - both factory raised animals and animals raised on small organic farms will need to be tagged. Animals warehoused on feedlots will be able to use a group / lot identification tag, while small scale farmers will have to undertake the labor of tagging every animal individually. While currently being implemented on a voluntary basis, the USDA is projecting that compliance with the new NAIS standards will be mandatory by 2008.

How the program will also affect private citizens who keep animals as pets is still something of a suspicious mystery. Right now the official NAIS website claims that "Under the current plan, animals that never leave a premises do not need to be identified. However, animal owners are encouraged to identify their animals and their premises, regardless of the number of animals present, since many animal diseases may be spread whether an animal leaves its home premises or not" (emphasis added). The NAIS website also states that any animal that "commingles" with other animals on other premises will require an identification tag. Taking Fido to a dog show will require an id tag; horses used for trail rides will also require id tags. What about taking Fido to the dog park where he will "commingle" with other dogs on a premises other than his backyard?

Every animal will be assigned a fifteen-digit number and registered into a database allowing its every move to be mapped. Proponents of the new initiative say that such efforts are needed to protect our food supply, and ourselves, from the ever increasing threat of avian influenza, mad cow disease, salmonella and E. Coli. The USDA's NAIS website claims that "NAIS will enhance U.S. efforts to respond to intentionally or unintentionally introduced animal disease outbreaks more quickly and effectively." Though only hinted at, it is also clear that the impetus for NAIS is related to new U.S. homeland security measures to guard against threats of bio-terrorism.

Such an extensive mandatory tracking system actually favors and protects large-scale factory farms at the expense of small, local, organic farms. One LocalHarvest member, who preferred not to be named, expressed concern that NAIS, "is one more program designed to give advantage to big business and/or big government in the name of 'security,' while stripping our personal liberties and rights to privacy." This rancher went on to explain that even though NAIS is still technically being implemented on a voluntary basis, "some beef for export is already required to carry the NAIS tag, and most folks in the industry anticipate that major buyers will eventually refuse to bid on animals or severely discount animals that are not tagged, effectively creating a 'mandatory voluntary' system."

Though the bottom-line cost of NAIS has not been established, the USDA claims that this ambitious undertaking must be a "cooperative effort," one that will require an "industry- government partnership." Yet the potential time, money and resources involved in implementing and maintaining the soon-to-be-mandatory surveillance program may simply be too much for small-scale farms to absorb, in effect forcing them out of the market entirely.

In addition to the concern about the cost to small farms to implement a tracking system, another worry is that NAIS will feed into and fuel the near hysteric fear of the potential for avian flu to be carried and transmitted by migratory birds, eventually pushing small farms to confine their animals. Farms committed to humanely raising pastured poultry could be forced to abandon these sustainable, healthier farming practices, leaving consumers with few, in any, alternatives to factory raised birds.

These factory farms are fostering the very conditions that are responsible for the animal and food borne illnesses against which NAIS purports to protect the American public. These include overcrowding, lack of fresh air and water, poor animal health, and the overuse of antibiotics. Indeed, Cheryl Potter, a poultry farmer in Santa Cruz, CA says, "I have strong opinions about [NAIS], including that it is an invasion of personal privacy and freedoms, as well as the fact that it favors large agribusiness and hurts small farmers, who in the majority of cases, are not the source of disease outbreak that the system claims it is trying to control."

Is NAIS a necessary safety measure to protect the American public from disease and illness in an era of global trafficking and potential threats of bio-terrorism? Is a complex, invasive surveillance system - which doesn't discriminate between factory farms, small organic farms, and private pet owners - the best solution to managing and preventing disease outbreak? Or is NAIS a bureaucratic means of favoring large-scale, industrialized agribusiness by safeguarding its conventional farming practices and protecting export markets, at the expense of small farmers who are selling their pastured livestock and poultry through farmers' markets and directly to local consumers? With such a system already being implemented across the country, it is clear that those of us who are committed to supporting local, sustainable, organic agriculture and food production have a responsibility to stay informed about the new NAIS program and to voice our concerns to our local, state, and federal officials. And, just as important, keep buying local and organic meat, poultry, and dairy products.

Back to the November 2006 Newsletter