NAIS subject of scrutiny at public hearing
Loveland, Colo. – Despite attentive security and prior warning to arrive early to claim a seat, the National Animal Identification System (NAIS) public comment hearing hosted by USDA June 1 at the Larimer County Fairgrounds was a low-key affair.
Upon turning into the event grounds one was met by a collection of livestock trailers and ranch pickups brought in by the Independent Cattlemen of Colorado and posted with banners reading “No NAIS” and “Don’t Tread On Me.”
Attended by approximately 100 people, members of state agencies, ag organizations and private landowners, the public comment period spanned just over three hours following short presentations from Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack via video and area representatives from USDA.
A frequent statement by the public was that repetition is key, and many of the comments reiterated that USDA should scrap their current program and path and start over.
“Repetition is the mother of retention,” said Laramie rancher and R-CALF Region 2 Director Taylor Haynes.
“The cost associated with NAIS for small producers will be extravagant,” said Alliance, Neb. cow/calf producer Bruce Messerschmidt, adding, “The track record of animal identification systems around the world is not strong.”
Lingle farmer and feeder Mark Bebo called the NAIS program a joke. “The projected cost is $200 to $300 million, which isn’t even close to the actual cost,” he said. “I believe the program itself is not workable.”
Bebo also questioned USDA’s failure to, or lack of desire to, “intercept diseased cattle from Canada, Mexico and, soon, South America.”
Colorado veterinarian Scott Krane, also a rancher, said he supports a market-driven animal identification system, which was also a common theme among the comments.
Dave Carter of the National Bison Association also shared concerns regarding producer compensation. “The cost borne by producers for disease prevention is a national concern,” he said. “Consumers have to share the burden, either through USDA funding or a market-driven system. The problem is that in the marketplace so many additional procedure costs are driven back to the producers, without compensation.”
Beef and lamb producer Mondo Valdez from the San Louis Valley of Colorado agreed with a market-driven approach. “Making NAIS mandatory offers no competitive advantage or differentiation in the marketplace. Producers who participate should be rewarded.”
Valdez also wondered how premises ID would affect property values, and whether property could be seized if an infected animal was found. “I don’t think we need another layer of bureaucracy,” he said, suggesting FSA have more of a place at the table, considering that agency already has relationships with landowners and producers.
From the bison perspective, Carter said, “We’re very concerned anytime procedures for handling animals are specified, because the folks raising bison end up with procedures designed for cattle when there are different husbandry and handling procedures for bison. We should support diversification, rather than continued consolidation and concentration.”
Also emphasized by several comments was that NAIS is not a food safety issue, but a disease prevention issue. However, producers like Lingle’s Bebo said he thinks the ID program will put liability on cattle producers for problems developed at the slaughterhouse. “We sell cattle, not beef steak,” he said. “Packinghouses can take care of this problem easily by paying for identification.”
Addressing the brand inspection issue, Wyoming Brand Commissioner Lee Romsa said, “When we talk about traceability, I’m the guy that does that. Right now we use brand inspection records and health records as our primary traceback.
“Brand inspection is a valuable tool we have in the West, and sometimes it’s the only tool, but if I said brand inspection alone could work in every situation, I’d by lying to you.”
He said the producer is the one who suffers the consequences when animal traceback isn’t fast enough. “The need for traceability is real. We’re not talking about future events, we do tracebacks on animal disease every year, and we have to have a system that works.”
He says right now states use metal tags for diseases like brucellosis, tuberculosis and scrapie. “When we have those pieces in place we can do tracebacks regularly,” he noted.
As a solution, he suggested states start with a tag and forego a national premises registration. “So much of our frustration is fighting over premises registration, and to me that’s the least important component. That’s like arguing over the color of the barn when the barn’s on fire. I can’t think of a single premises ID we’ve used in actual traceback situations. We can find the producers in our state.”
“We need to strengthen our current system – it’s one that works, but we need to fix the problems,” said Romsa, adding there are major problems in the back-tagging system, where needed information for tracebacks is sometimes thrown away before tests are back for slaughtered cattle.
Wyoming State Veterinarian Walt Cook agreed, saying Wyoming has a system that works pretty well, referencing mandatory brucellosis and scrapie tags. “They work well when they work, but the problem is human error. Our biggest problem is at slaughter, where a lot of times the ID isn’t kept, and that makes it very difficult for us to do a traceback.”
He said he thinks the biggest problem is the lack of consequences for slaughterhouses that fail to keep animal identification information. “I think they ought to pay a hefty fine and be shut down during the investigation to find out why the ID was not kept. I think they’d start doing a better job keeping ID for us.”
“I believe we need a mandatory system, but I don’t believe we need NAIS. I think a state system can work well, and I think in Wyoming our system does work well when human errors are taken out of the picture,” concluded Cook.
Christy Hemken is assistant editor of the Wyoming Livestock Roundup and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.