Snowden and the battle over animal ID

Jul 26, 2013
by DTN

—The market´s fine print.

Let’s start with a short quiz on current events:

Edward Snowden, former computer geek with the National Security Agency (NSA) last seen working security at the Moscow airport, is best described as: A) a patriotic whistleblower; B) a goofball spy; C) a villainous traitor; or D) an unwitting advocate of livestock production liberty.

Of course, this is an essay question masquerading as multiple-choice. While there’s no one right answer at this point, those of you who checked “D” will still get extra credit, both for suggesting you know a thing or two about how the issue of privacy plays in the meat market, and for simply helping to move the narrative ball along.

Young Mr. Snowden may be the current rock-star of the privacy-versus-state-security stage, but he hardly invented the act.

While the fact may have gone unnoticed by either Wolf Blitzer or the Harvard Law Review, the U.S. cattle industry has been conducting a fairly intensive seminar on the topic over the last decade.

This summer marks the 10-year anniversary of BSE in North America, the infamous “mad cow” contagion that caused first the Canadian and then the U.S. beefexporting machine to crash into a thousand pieces of health and safety concerns.

One minute the USDA’s time-honored stamp of “Choice” enjoyed all the sway of a diplomatic passport, automatically rolling out the welcome mat on every trading dock in the world. But the next sobering minute, once eager and carefree customers had more questions than an interrogator at Guantanamo: Where were the cattle born? Out of what cows and bulls? How old are the steers? Where were they fed to market weight? Have the animals ever been commingled with other herds? If so, when and how often?

Although Canada initially had a much bigger problem with the new skepticism and fear of beef importers, it could at least tout a national animal identification system in place two years before the May 2003 discovery of BSE in Alberta. But ranchers and feedlot managers nervously washing hands south of the border could show little more than a shoebox half-full of branding papers and random records from the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service.

So it was not surprising that country trumpets increasingly blared the urgent need for some kind of comprehensive animal ID system throughout the summer of 2003, especially as the economic devastation of the Canadian beef industry became more and more apparent. Token support was even voiced by some on the far right of cattle politics, extremely rugged individuals who hated the meddling of “Big Brother” more than nosy bankers, commission-hungry brokers, or even a rainless grazing season.

But the seven-month honeymoon enjoyed by U.S. producers from late May to late December that fateful year made it relatively easy to be at least somewhat expansive about the need for better animal ID. After all, the worldwide boycott of Canadian production was helping sponsor record U.S. cattle and beef prices. And if you were willing to drink enough of the Kool-Aid, there was ample evidence to convince global customers of an American firewall against BSE.

In short, prior to the discovery of the contaminated Washington state cow on Dec. 23, the practical consequences of an effective animal identification system seemed too remote and theoretical for many to lose much sleep.

For a multitude of reasons, insomnia grew by leaps and bounds as 2004 began as foreign consumers slammed doors shut and government investigators went to work on a major jigsaw puzzle with half the pieces missing. Suddenly, the absence of a national trace-back system had real and serious costs, both in terms of lost export business and unacceptable delays in answering questions of food security.

Over the next several years, the bandwagon for the National Animal Identification System (NAIS) seemed to gather steam, slowly powered forward by the likes of USDA secretaries Ann Veneman and Mike Johanns, Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge, and a host of officers from major livestock organizations.

Yet as ID proponents became increasingly serious in their concerns and efforts, the same can be said about system detractors. Libertyminded producers who valued core privacy—whether treasured in terms of cattle genetics, marketing patterns, or business volume—bristled at new regulatory suggestions such as “premises” and “electronic ear tags.”

A friendly debate moved closer to open warfare once it became clear by 2005 that the strongest advocates of NAIS believed that mandatory participation by all livestock producers was pretty much nonnegotiable. In the face of cries for privacy, individual rights, and limiting governmental power, champions of ID argued that the safety and security of the market writ large essentially made other goals secondary.

Regardless which side you favor, most will likely agree that this framing of the question pretty much fits the whirlwind surrounding Edward Snowden, the current news cycle’s man-without-a-country. Apparently, Snowden fancies himself as a national hero with courage enough to expose NSA for brutally invading the private lives of U.S. citizen.

The folks at the White House see it a bit differently.

By leaking sensitive security data, Washington views Snowden as a lawbreaker who has recklessly damaged a proven system’s ability to counter budding terrorism and generally safeguard the nation as a whole. The forces of individual liberty and social welfare are always fighting for balance.

But let’s get back to the animal ID story.

As the identification debate drew to a close in late 2005, it was clear that the case for mandatory participation was going down. Perhaps if the recovery of U.S. beef prospects had looked even more daunting. Perhaps if lower cattle prices had torn more aggressively at the industry’s general equity. Perhaps if history had somehow made the basic DNA of cattlemen less independent.

Whatever, the powers that be, sensing that the political tide had turned, spent the rest of the decade re-crafting a more modest approach to animal traceability, one that relied more on pre-existing systems of identification and tracking while minimizing any new invasion of the private business realm.

Finally on March 13 of this year, USDA published the Animal Disease Traceability rule. Requiring only a makeshift paper trail for cattle over 18 months of age involved in interstate commerce, it represents a long drift from the ambitious identification dreams in the immediate wake of the BSE crisis.

The next major problem in livestock health (e.g., the worrisome PED virus currently floating through the swine world) could cause the battle between the individual rights of producers and the good of the larger market to be rejoined. But for now, there’s little doubt which side has won the day.

In fact, as homeless Snowden spins through his iPhone in search of asylum, he just might find some welcoming soul mates in the heart of cattle country. — Katie Micik, DTN