USDA holds NAIS listening session in Washington

May 22, 2009
by WLJ

USDA holds NAIS listening session in Washington

USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) last Monday conducted the second in a round of seven "listening sessions" scheduled to take place around the country in an effort to seek inputs on the federal National Animal ID System (NAIS). The session was held in Pasco, WA, and drew ranchers and other interested parties from across Washington to express their concerns regarding the proposed system.

In an opening statement, Dr. Larry Granger, director of the Centers for Epidemiology and Animal Health in Colorado, detailed the concerns of Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack. "Despite five years of concerted effort, we have not been able to implement this system," read Granger from a prepared statement. "Many real and significant challenges remain before anyone can confidently claim that the United States has an effective animal disease traceability system in place."

Wade King, rancher and president of the Cattle Producers of Washington, does not agree with that assessment. His group feels that current systems are adequate in states that have a brand law.

"Our state has an effective database system in place," said King. "Washington should not be penalized because other states lack this capability."

He further pointed out that continuing to push the NAIS program contradicts the Obama administration’s pledge to revamp protection of the nation’s food supply by focusing on disease prevention rather than chasing outbreaks.

"NAIS does nothing to prevent disease," stated King.

Other concerns centered on the potential toll that NAIS could have on an already complicated cattle shipping system.

"It has to be a system that works at the speed of commerce, or close to it," said Spokane cattle producer and livestock marketer Willard Wolf. "Speaking from experience, I am here to tell you that (NAIS) will not work."

Wolf also stressed the need to keep people involved in the process, rather than simply trying to track a computerized tag. Other producers expressed agreement that the proposed system is too cumbersome to keep up with the thousands of cattle moved daily around the country. Wolf, who has worked for USDA in the past, was also critical of the cost/benefit analysis released by APHIS recently. He pointed out that the benefit of increased exports described in the analysis should not include the export of significant materials such as offal, which is not traceable by the time it is exported.

All told, some 30 speakers came to the podium and used their three minutes of allotted speaking time to voice comments for, or more commonly, against NAIS. The most common concerns mentioned, and the most emotional ones, centered on the use of a premise ID to establish the location of livestock. Many producers felt that having their name and personal information entered into a database was a violation of their privacy rights, a concern that Washington state veterinarian Leonard Eldridge says is unfounded.

One of only a few speakers in favor of the system, Eldridge pointed out that the national database does not contain any information that is not already in state databases.

"The state has always held that information," he said. "And when there is a need, Washington has always shared the information needed to trace exposed or diseased livestock with other state animal health officials."

He also stressed the need for flexibility in the system between differing regions, and advocated an exemption for small producers and hobbyists.

Despite this reassurance, many producers still feel that a mandatory premise ID system that focuses on the land rather than the livestock owner will be damaging to their livelihood. This is particularly the case with people who utilize leased ground for grazing. They fear landowners will be suspicious and unwilling to participate in a government program that they may not fully understand, and may eliminate grazing rather than deal with the program.

In eastern Washington, many ranchers rely heavily on crop residue for winter grazing, often dealing with as many as 20 or 30 landowners in the course of a season.

"They’re going to say they don’t need us anymore," said one worried rancher. "We’re already checking our options on what we’re going to do if this goes through."

Ranchers who rely on these leases also pointed out that the current practice of frequent rotation between fields makes reporting every move to a database provider prohibitively time consuming, complicated and expensive.

Amid the barrage of concerns and criticisms, very few solutions were forthcoming. However, the solutions and suggestions that were provided all followed the same theme. Producers made it clear that for the program to garner their support, it must be simple, cheap, and above all, voluntary. The next listening session scheduled for the western U.S. will take place in Loveland, CO, June 1. For more information, check the APHIS Web site at — Jason Campbell, WLJ Correspondent