Jun 19, 2009


On and on


There is a lot of legislation concerning agriculture circulating in Washington, D.C. I don’t think I have ever seen so many issues that would have a direct effect on agriculture being worked on at one time: The Clean Water Restoration Act, which just passed out of the Senate committee on Environment and Public Works last Thursday, on a partisan vote; the Food Safety Enhancement Act also passed in the House Energy and Commerce Committee last Thursday; and the list just seems to go on and on. All these issues are contentious. However, one positive observation is that the many agriculture groups representing farmers and ranchers seem to have formed better working relationships, primarily because these proposed laws have an impact on every aspect of agriculture. It’s imperative that they all work together for common agriculture; perhaps we can have a greater legislative voice for the 2 percent of the population that produces food. One issue we’ve been following very closely is the National Animal Identification System (NAIS). Last week, Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-CT, who is chairwoman of the Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee, decided NAIS should lose its funding until USDA can figure out how to implement the program. USDA received just over $14 million for the program last year and only boosted participation by 3 percent.

In 2008, DeLauro wanted to require beef bought for USDA’s school lunch program be purchased from cattle that conformed to NAIS. It seems odd that she would change her tune now. The food safety bill that came out last week had a bunch of traceback provisions that would lend even more support for mandatory NAIS, a provision that cattle producers can live without. One aspect of the bill that was removed was the plan to register and inspect individual farms.

In the back of my mind, these contradictory actions make me wonder if she plans to give this NAIS task to a different government agency, like the Food and Drug Administration, which will gain additional power over the food system. As chairwoman of ag appropriations, it would seem unlikely that she would give this to another agency. However, sources tell me that she is not happy with the progress on NAIS. USDA has been holding well-publicized listening sessions on NAIS, seeking stakeholder feedback. I would suspect Secretary Tom Vilsack may have received more feedback than he wanted. USDA has had a cold reception in the country from cattle producers and a variety of small livestock operations.

Cattle producers are passionately opposed to any mandatory animal ID program. I would guess that roughly 95 percent of the folks that attended these listening sessions are opposed to the program.

USDA has bumbled NAIS since its inception. They have handed out a ton of money to state vets and various ag groups to promote the program.

They also gave their 840 tag protocol a black eye when they finalized the rule for Country of Origin Labeling by assuming that any cattle without an M or CAN brand were of U.S. origin. For many reasons, it would be reasonable to take USDA out of the NAIS business. But if this is truly an animal disease issue, they should be the ones to run the show. The Food Safety Enhancement Act that DeLauro is working on is her baby, her legacy, and I just can’t see NAIS getting tabled for very long, even though livestock producers don’t want the program. I can sure see the idea of mandatory NAIS becoming a reality.

She is waiting for Vilsack to conclude the listening sessions and present his conclusions on NAIS, which may not be that easy to predict.

NAIS doesn’t have anything to do with food safety and I would say that Nebraska has done a pretty good job in tracking down TB-infected herds in recent weeks. But the folks working on this food safety bill seem to think it’s an easy process to trace every aspect of food production. They would ultimately like every ingredient in every food product to have traceability, even to the extent of tracing the feed a steer has consumed, or the source of the wheat in bread.

There is a showdown coming, for certain, and US- DA has created a big problem for themselves. I would think that the new administration at USDA is somewhat lost on NAIS and would like to simply focus on their agenda of biofuels, organic farming, and locally produced slow food. But it’s time they get their game face on and deal with production agriculture by helping producers do what they do best, produce the safe, wholesome products they always have. — PETE CROW