Thursday, March 13, 2008


The National Animal Identification System is a program first proposed by the United States Department of Agriculture a few years ago that would require the electronic identification and tracking of nearly all domestic livestock – think microchips and computer databases. The USDA's stated motive, as I understand it, is to use the program to protect the American public from outbreaks of animal-borne diseases. That sounds like a good thing – when a disease is detected in an animal food product, the source and history of that animal could be quickly identified.


The NAIS proposal was met with fervent resistance from small farmers, ranchers and other animal owners. In fact, the outrage was so great that the USDA backed off the federal plan in 2006. Now, however, it seems that USDA is working with the states to get components of the program instituted on a state-by-state basis, and again the pages of small farming trade journals are filled with fiery editorials decrying the program.

The arguments against the NAIS generally seem to fall into two categories:

Economic: One editorial I read paints the NAIS as a scheme by agribusiness conglomerates to help themselves look responsible while hurting their competition – small farmers. The corporate owners of massive factory farms support the NAIS, the editorial says, because their animals are born, live, and die at the same location, and a loophole in the program will allow them to give a single lot number to cover their whole flock or herd (rather than tag and track each animal.) With little effort, they will able to show international trading partners the steps they are taking to ensure the safety of their product. And while these big corporations won't have to spend the money to tag every one of their animals, the small farmer -- who can least afford it – will.

The irony in this is that most disease outbreaks occur not on small farms but at the giant factory farms. According to the editorial, the NAIS will change little in how the big factories treat and process their animals. Meanwhile the small farmer raising his animal in a responsible manner will suffer.

Privacy: This argument seems pretty straightforward. Suspicious farmers don't want Big Brother meddling in their business. Microchips and government computer databases aren't popular among the farming set.

Check out this excerpt from a letter-to-the-editor in Rural Heritage:

"I am an anti-federalist, privacy loving southerner, direct descendant of a Revolutionary soldier, and a truckload of Confederate soldiers. … I will not go down peacefully."

Now, I should point out that there weren't any editorials in any of my trade journals praising the NAIS. I'd like to hear the other side of the argument, too.