NAIS? Bah, humbug
By Miryam Ehrlich Williamson
Photo: apalucia / flikr
If you live anywhere near these cities, listen up. Your presence is needed.
Harrisburg, PA; Pasco, WA; Austin, TX; Birmingham, AL; Louisville, KY; Storrs, CT; or Loveland, CO
The USDA wants to know what you think about tagging your livestock — chickens, sheep, goats, cattle, and all, even if they are pets — and listing them with the government. Harrisburg comes first, on May 14, so read this now, especially if you live there.
About three years ago, my husband and I got a letter from the Massachusetts Department of Agriculture inviting us to register our livestock with the state in a voluntary program. Animals would be tagged with unique numbers and their movements (from one farm to another, to the slaughterhouse, and to parts unknown if they were lost or abducted by a predator) reported to the state. The idea, we were told, originated with the Department of Homeland Security (a bureaucratic title that makes me want to scream) and was designed to prevent contagion, as in bird flu and mad cow disease. Nationally, the USDA would administer the program.
The letter called upon us to let the state know if we didn’t want to take part in the program. The implication: If we didn’t opt out, we would be automatically opted in and obliged to comply. An email address was supplied for use by those who didn’t want to participate. We certainly didn’t want to participate. The email address turned out to be inoperative. Undaunted, we phoned, opted out, and requested (twice) written confirmation that our option had been recorded. On the second request, we got the confirmation we wanted.
I’m not above requesting confirmation this way as a blow for equality on the bureaucratic playing field, but in this case it seemed reasonable and prudent to have proof on file in case someone, some day, wanted to say we’d failed to opt out.
Tell the government how many laying hens we have? Spend money for equipment to tag birds that we couldn’t possibly sell for as much as the cost of the tagging equipment? As they say in Alaska (someone does, anyway), “Thenks, but no thenks.”
In 2007, the USDA backed off and put the National Animal Identification System (NAIS) on hold. Until now. Starting in Harrisburg, PA, on May 14, USDA will conduct a series of “listening sessions” — not, particularly, to ask what you think of the NAIS proposal, but to ask how to make it better. This sounds very much like the decision to proceed has been made.
The reasons USDA gives for signing up sound vaguely threatening to me:
I wonder if Tom Vilsack has been on deck long enough even to know about this Bush-era proposal to snoop on us in yet another way.
If you wonder who would benefit, or be hurt the least, if NAIS is instituted, consider this: If I have a couple of dozen chickens, I’m expected to tag each one individually. If I have a thousand head of cattle, I can get a single tag number for the lot of them. All the clerical work and manual labor lands on the small and hobby farms. If disease is what this is about, why is it that the factory operations, where disease is far more likely to flourish, gets off easy?
If I thought I’d have to comply with this edict, I’d probably turn my hens into fricasee and buy cardboard-flavored eggs from the supermarket, where USDA allows them to be called “fresh” if they were packed 45 days earlier. Maybe USDA will actually go ahead and institute the rule, but they’re going to have to find me to make me obey. And, as the Chinese say, “The mountains are high and the emperor is far away.”
NAIS puts you at risk even if you don’t raise livestock. If all of us small organic farmers go out of business, where will you get your chemical free eggs, your free-range beef and chicken? What would life — and nutrition — be like if all our meat and eggs came from factory farms, with their hormone- and antibiotic-fed products?