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More Insanity from the U.S.D.A.

Apr
14
2008

Most bureaucracies are famed for their lack of imagination, but the U.S. Department of Agriculture manages to consistently confound that dismal notion by finding new ways to control what we eat and who we buy it from. How the U.S.D.A. plans to regulate the farmers from whom I buy locally-raised meats is a good example of this ineptitude.

On many Friday afternoons I drive down to an empty grocery store parking lot to meet up with Ralph and Kimberley Cole who operate West Wind Farms. On these occasions I’ll buy a chicken or a pork loin or even, on rare occasions, a steak. Their animals are not only organic, but raised on pasture. I also buy meat from Tracy Monday who operates Laurel Creek Farms, and although Monday’s farm isn’t certified organic, there is no appreciable difference between the way he raises his animals and the Coles raise theirs. Both are small farms, personal operations, if you will.

But it seems clear that the U.S.D.A. doesn’t want me – or you – to buy meat raised sustainably by local farmers. Oh sure, it claims it supports all farmers, but in reality it only supports industrial farmers: Big Ag. Or least that’s what its new project, the National Animal Identification System (NAIS) seems to prove.

The headline statement on the NAIS Web site is: “To protect the health of U.S. livestock and poultry and the economic well-being of those industries, we must be able to quickly and effectively trace an animal disease to its source.”

Note, first, that there’s no mention of consumers in this statement. Animals will be protected (supposedly), industries will be protected (certainly), but you and me? Phfft!

Created as part of the Patriot Act – an act of Congressional insanity if there ever was one – this initiative required that every “livestock” animal – cows, goats, chickens, your child’s pet Easter rabbit or pony – be registered in a national database, implanted with a Radio Frequency ID (RFID) chip, and its every movement be tracked from birth to death.

So, let’s assume you were foolish enough to give your kid a live rabbit at Easter. The breeder would have to register his premises and that rabbit. When he sold it to the pet store they would have to do the same. When you bought the rabbit… Yep, you too. Furthermore, every movement of the rabbit must be logged, so if you take the rabbit to the vet you’ve got to log that movement – to the vet first and then back again. And the vet also has to log it. And, of course, fees will be charged for all this folderol. Also, note that NAIS does nothing to directly improve the safety of the meat you eat, it is simply a tracking program.

OK. So you’re not foolish enough to buy your daughter a rabbit. But my local farmers would have to register their premises, implant RFID chips in every chicken, pig lamb and duck and log any movement of their animals in the national database. I know these folks, they’re scraping by on a prayer and passion for quality. NAIS means time and money they can’t spare.

But here’s the real killer. “Vertically integrated” operations, such as Tyson foods, that own the entire chain from birth to slaughter only need to register animals as a group. So while the Coles have to track each individual chicken because that’s the nature of their business – small and personal – Tyson pays the same price for 30,000 chickens. Guess what? Tyson is all in favor of this “government interference.” The result? The U.S.D.A. is throwing the weight of the federal government, on the side of Big Ag once again.

There has been push-back from small operators and the U.S.D.A. has backed off from enforcing it at a national level. Instead the U.S.D.A. is strongly encouraging individual states to enforce the initiative. Again note, NAIS will remain a federal program administered by the U.S.D.A., the states are simply being made to do the dirty work of making it mandatory.

NAIS may be a good idea for the Tysons and Smithfields that have no sense of social responsibility to begin with. But NAIS won’t directly improve quaility, will be devastating for small farmers, and makes no sense at all when it comes to that pet rabbit.

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