to the drawing board for NAIS
Capital Press 5/28/09
If ever there
was a good idea gone bad, it is the National Animal Identification
In fact, if you were to write a textbook on how to turn people
against something, it would be titled "NAIS: Fear and Loathing in
All along, small producers expressed their dismay at a system that
would make them register their premises no matter whether they had
a single goat or a herd of 1,000. That they were required to
report any movement of their animals added to the sense of "big
brother" watching them.
It is a statement of the obvious that folks who make their living
on farms and ranches are independent-minded and have a healthy
distrust of big government. The idea that the government was
collecting a file full of information about every farm or ranch
with one or more animals seemed even more menacing.
When the USDA tried to force 4-H and FFA members into registering
their premises before they could show their animals at fairs, more
red flags were hoisted.
A program presented as voluntary that would phase in over years
suddenly looked as though it would be imposed whether anyone
wanted it or not.
Indeed, after five years, only 36 percent of premises have been
registered under NAIS. That an estimated 768,000 farmers and
ranchers chose not to sign up under NAIS is testimony in itself
about what they think about it.
The irony is that the concept behind NAIS is a good one. A further
irony is that pork producers and dairy operators have had a
variation of it for years, and many states have brand inspection
programs that nearly duplicate what NAIS would accomplish. Larger
operators of all types maintain scrupulous records on their
When a disease appears in a population of animals, the state and
federal governments must move quickly and decisively. Every minute
lost chasing records could mean the spread of the disease will
There's no doubt about it. NAIS is one way - but not the only way
- to allow officials to identify and isolate afflicted
There aren't many pork producers or dairy operators who couldn't
tell you everything you'd every want to know about any of their
animals. For them, it's part of their business. Even so, the first
case of bovine spongiform encephalopathy in Washington state
demonstrated how long it can take to trace where the animal came
from - Canada - and where its herd mates may have gone.
Ultimately, some of those questions were not definitively answered
after months of investigation.
That experience alone points to the need for a better system.
Unfortunately, as it now stands, NAIS may not fit that bill.
At a hearing last week in Pasco, Wash., all but two of the 75
producers who testified opposed NAIS. These were not wild-eyed
conspiracy theorists with tin foil on their heads. They included
the state veterinarian, two statewide cattle organizations and
other operators, large and small.
"Washington state has a good existing system, and the USDA needs
to take the opportunity to slow down and see what the states are
doing for a traceability system," said Jack Field, executive
director of the Washington Cattlemen's Association.
Washington State Veterinarian Leonard Eldridge urged the USDA to
"remain voluntary and flexible." The state currently has tracking
systems for cattle brands - as do other states - and for
brucellosis. Sheep are tagged under a scrapies prevention program.
With those programs in force, it's clear the added benefit NAIS
offers to cattle and sheep producers would be minimal.
USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack is wise to call a time-out and listen
closely to producers before going ahead with full implementation
of NAIS. They have a lot to say, and it's all worth hearing.
Ultimately, the answer will lie in an NAIS program that dovetails
with the states' efforts - and respects the rights of all
producers, large and small.