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The NAIS Controversy

Part I

By Heather Smith Thomas

By now most people who own farm animals have heard about the National Animal Identification System (NAIS) plan that’s being pushed by USDA, but many of us are still finding out how this might affect us-with premises registration, individual animal ID and tracking requirements. In spite of the fact USDA has no legal authority to force this system on us, the agency has pushed forward with plans to have it mandatory by 2009. As of March 2006, 235,000 premises (10 percent of national total) had been registered and USDA predicted that 475,000 of our two million premises will be registered by the end of 2006. USDA says much of the NAIS is now operational and that remaining elements soon will be. Plans are for having all databases operational by early 2007, and 100 percent of all premises registered (and all nine billion target animals given ID) by January 2009. USDA has a contingency plan to make this "voluntary" program mandatory "if participation rates are not adequate."

Secretary Johanns says this has been high priority with USDA; "we’ve made significant strides toward achieving a comprehensive U.S. system. We recognize that this represents one of the largest systematic changes ever faced by the livestock industry and we have welcomed suggestions from stakeholders to ensure that we continue to gain momentum." Yet some of the stakeholders have never had the chance for input and are just now learning about drastic changes this system will entail.

A huge number of animal owners who will be greatly affected by the NAIS plan were never informed about what was happening, since the USDA only discussed the plan with large producer groups and ignored small, independent farmers. USDA claimed that "listening sessions" held by APHIS (June through November, 2004) produced 59 out of 60 comments in support of the NAIS. This was a distortion-since these were closed meetings; the people who attended them were carefully chosen. By contrast, after USDA announced the program publicly in July 2005, a listening session in Texas drew more than 700 comments, a majority of which were opposed to the program.

How did the NAIS evolve?

This ambitious project was spawned by the NIAA (National Institute for Animal Agriculture), a self-appointed group made up of many organizations involved in animal agriculture, including some of the largest corporations (such as Monsanto, Cargill Meat, National Pork Producers) and many manufacturers of high-tech animal equipment (Allflex, Digital Angel, Global Vet Link, Micro Beef Technologies, etc.). Some of them have a vested interest in a national animal ID program because it will ensure more markets and higher prices for their meat or for ID equipment.

The NIAA brings together interested parties from government and industry to discuss issues in animal agriculture and to create action plans. Neil Hammerschmidt, Coordinator for the NAIS at USDA (APHIS), helped develop an international program before he took charge of the U.S. ID program. During 1998-2003 (just prior to his present position) he chaired the ID and Information committee of the NIAA and was involved in the International Committee on Animal Recording and the ISO (International Standards Organization) Working Group for International Standards for Electronic Identification of Animals.

Some of the big players in the livestock/meat packing industry want a strong foreign market for their beef and a lion’s share of the domestic market. The international trade market is part of what is driving the NAIS plan. In 2003 our beef exports brought $7.5 billion. This market crashed after the first cow with BSE was discovered in the U.S. (a cow that came originally from a Canadian herd); in 2005 beef exports were down to $1.22 billion because some countries refused to buy our beef. So packers and their trade associates want to restore and enhance the export market.

They want traceability of animals (since many foreign markets demand it). Some of the largest domestic markets for beef are also demanding traceability. McDonalds claims traceability for 10 percent of their meat and wants 100 percent; Wal-Mart demands 100 percent. These demands put pressure on meat processors who then want producers to provide traceable (tagged) products.

Why not keep it voluntary?

Systems already in place for tracking animal diseases and movements in this country have worked. Brand laws, health certificates, control programs for brucellosis, TB, scrapie, etc. have done a good job. We haven’t had a case of foot and mouth disease in the U.S. since 1929. BSE is a non-contagious disease caused by cattle eating feed containing body parts of cattle with BSE. The sale of feed supplements containing rendered animal parts was banned in the U.S. in 1997. The only way we can get it is by importing animals (and meat) from other countries.

The best defense against foreign animal diseases is monitoring of imported animals and meat-not by making every U.S. owner ID their livestock. If some people want to export animals or meat they could voluntarily participate in value-added programs. A national ID program should be voluntary or limited to animals most likely to be included in international commerce-without government imposing an intrusive system on every premises that has a farm animal.

The new USDA Undersecretary for Marketing and Regulatory Programs (which include APHIS, which puts him in charge of the NAIS), Bruce Knight, stated at the hearing for his nomination that he thought the program should be kept voluntary. But this may be a ploy to pacify the growing opposition to the program. In June 2006 USDA put out a "Guide for Small Scale or Non-commercial Producers" which implies that the program is completely voluntary and has no penalties or enforcement provisions. But when pressed for comment in a news conference, USDA Secretary Johanns made it very clear that if voluntary participation was not 100 percent, he had the authority to make the program mandatory. Indeed, if USDA had no thought of making it mandatory and didn’t really care whether people participated or not, why would they be spending so much money and pushing so hard to implement it?

Shortcomings of the RFID system

The NAIS dictates that every farm animal (other than those in large commercial groups like pigs and chickens that stay together from birth to slaughter and have one group number) must have an individual ID number. These can be ear tags or implanted microchips. The NAIS stipulates use of the ISO (International Standards Organization) 134.2 kHz (kilohertz) frequency chips-the type used in many European countries.

There are several kinds of microchips, however. In the U.S., horse owners, pet owners and other animal owners have been using an American chip system (125 kHz) to provide secure ID for registered animals, to help prevent theft, locate missing animals, etc. For pets and horses, for instance, there are private tracking systems that work together and have been in place for 15 years. After Hurricane Katrina, 364 horses were gathered up and all but one returned to their owners because they had microchips. Most horses in Louisiana have microchips already (in conjunction with the state’s Coggins testing program to eliminate Equine Infectious Anemia), but these are the 125 kHz chips.

A private database network gives horse and pet owners immediate assistance when an animal is missing or stolen. There are scanners for these chips in nearly every law enforcement office, animal shelter, etc. across the country. The ISO scanners, however, can’t detect these chips. The USDA is hurrying to put their ISO type scanners into the field to accommodate the type of chip they want us all to use, but it will take awhile to get enough out there, and unless the new scanners are dual readers, any 125 kHz chips won’t be detected. Yet dual readers are not reliable because they don’t "read" each chip at the same speed.

The two systems are not effectively cross compatible. Scanners designed to read both frequencies are not efficient nor reliable because only one frequency can be prioritized within the scanner. This leaves the other in second place and vulnerable to being missed. In a recent study by Proctor and Gamble, a scanner designed to read only the 125 kHz chip produced 100 percent read efficiency, while a scanner designed to read both frequencies missed 50 percent of the chips. In any ID program, it is essential that scanners read microchips quickly and accurately. Scanners operate at top efficiency (and are most reliable) when built to read one frequency, not several. One reason the U.S. system has worked so well is because we have just one frequency and all scanners read all the chips that operate at that frequency.

The 125 kHz system is an American system that’s been in use for more than 15 years. Many countries (including most of South America) have never used the ISO system the USDA wants us to use, because the latter is an open system and easily compromised. It was originally developed in Russia and Europe to identify tractor parts and commodities for the international European market. A scanner in Germany or France, for instance, could "read" a chip on an Italian part and know what it was. The 134.2 kHz chip has a 15 digit number, the first three digits being a country code.

Because the ISO system is open (in the public domain, with published standards any chip manufacturer can follow) there is no legal way to stop production of unsanctioned chips. The problem with using this type of chip for disease trace-back, bio-security or unique ID for ownership proof, breed registry number or theft and fraud prevention is there is no guarantee of uniqueness of ID codes. There are several ways the ID codes can be counterfeited in an open standard. Chips can be ordered factory programmed with desired numbers, and some manufacturers are selling reprogrammable chips indistinguishable from factory-programmed chips. Some chips can be reprogrammed as many times as you want, even after they’re in an animal or an ear tag. An implanted chip’s number can be read by a small hand-held device that can then be used to put that number on another chip in a different animal.

Duplicate numbers weren’t a problem in the original setting for which the ISO system was developed (commodities-to make sure certain types of paper products made by different companies would fit your printer, for instance), but they are a problem for animal ID. Because ear tags in livestock are often lost, the ISO group in 2001 decided to allow for retagging animals with a new tag carrying the same chip number as the lost one, and allowed for blank chips that can be programmed. Then reprogrammable chips were allowed. In a May, 2001 ISO document describing their criteria for replacing lost animal chips, they stated it would be disastrous if these blank chips fell into the wrong hands. Instead of trying to preserve the integrity of the system they essentially said "you can duplicate and reprogram these tags", but "we are not responsible."

An open system won’t work for a national database for disease control or for valuable animals that need unique ID to prevent theft or animal-switching. A look-alike could pose for a more valuable animal. An animal from another country could appear to be one from the U.S. or vice versa. USDA is not being realistic in thinking we can use this system for dependable animal trace-back to farm of origin, or to thwart bio-terrorism. A published open standard for something that’s supposed to provide unique or secure ID won’t work. According to Barbara Masin, the U.S. member of the ISO board, "This would be like our government publishing the standard for dollar bills, telling people exactly what paper to use, what color ink, etc. so anyone could do it!" This is not a good system upon which to base a national animal ID program!

USDA and others who are pushing for the ISO 134.2 kHz chip required by the NAIS tell us this is an international standard and our country must comply. But they’re not telling us this standard is flawed and many countries don’t use it. This "standard" was created as the result of political compromise and has many flaws regarding performance and technical feasibility. More than 60 countries besides the U.S. have not adopted this system and many of the countries using it are not happy with it and have asked that the standard be repealed. There were so many complaints last year that the matter was put to a vote, and 50 percent of the voting nations in the ISO group voted to have the standard repealed or revised. Thus it is not the universally accepted technology that some people claim it to be. There are suspicions that this system was chosen mainly because of the market advantage it will give certain players who helped create the NAIS.

People who are aware of the problems with the ISO system wonder why USDA is dictating the use of this particular chip. Barbara Masin, who sits on the ISO board, says it is not suitable, and "when this was being discussed for livestock, our ISO board approached the USDA and attempted to communicate with everyone from Anne Venneman (Secretary of Agriculture at that time) on down, and they did not return our calls. I went to the USDA listening sessions and offered to show them the problem with duplication possibilities, but they didn’t want to see it. The situation is very political. There are certain people involved within the USDA who have very close ties to certain manufacturers. There is an underlying agenda, unfortunately," says Masin.

The flaws in this system have been well documented as far back as 1995, she says. "It’s unfortunate that when the discussion at USDA was happening for the livestock standard, it wasn’t an open discussion." Listening sessions were "closed" with crowd control supervision. "USDA did not want to see any information against the system, and did not respond to efforts to show them what was going on in other countries," says Masin.

USDA continues to push on with their agenda, telling stockmen to use these tags with this RIFD frequency, but they don’t have enough "read range" to be practical. Scanners must be practically at touching distance. Cattle, sheep and goats must be restrained (in a chute, or held) to get close enough for accurate scanning. In field tests, a high percentage of tags or implanted chips can’t be detected when animals come off a truck or go through a sale ring. One sale yard reported "read rates" as low as 47 percent for feeder pigs and 66 percent for sheep. Environmental factors (weather, lighting in a sale barn, type of fencing, electromagnetic interference from motors used in the auction yard) can interfere with the scanners in sale barns; they can’t pick up the low frequency chips. Sale barn owners worry that they can’t afford the equipment and also wonder if the complications of the ID system will lead more stockmen to sell directly to feedlots or packers; it all adds up to more small markets going out of business. Equity Livestock (an outfit with 13 sale barns in Iowa and Wisconsin) recently spent $70,000 for scanners, software and extra labor to test electronic ID at one of their yards, but feels this cost would be hard to justify in smaller operations.

Government intrusion into our lives/Control of animal agriculture

The greatest advantage America has over most other countries is our personal freedom and a free market system. Government involvement in free enterprise has always been detrimental, except when needed to ensure consumer and workplace safety and fair competition. But the NAIS (which seems to have been created to protect international markets and give unfair advantage to certain players in industry) is being forced on us in the guise of disease prevention. We were doing a good job of that already.

The NAIS is not fair, nor necessary. It is un-American to impose a mandatory ID system on everyone who owns a farm animal. In essence this creates a tax on animal agriculture or requires us to "buy a license" to own an animal, since ultimately it would be illegal to not comply. Centralized control of agriculture is dictatorship, not free enterprise. The NAIS intrudes on our free enterprise system, our property rights and personal property, and in some instances our religious freedom. There are some religious groups who use animals for their own use and livelihood who do not believe in using modern technology like microchips or computers. And who will enforce the NAIS? Not everyone will comply, even if it becomes mandatory.

Can the USDA make us do it? A growing number of people are taking an in-depth look at the NAIS plan, questioning not only whether it will work or be cost effective, but whether it is legal or constitutional (and whether the USDA even considered cheaper and more practical alternatives). The NAIS may violate the Fourth Amendment because USDA wants surveillance of every premises where even a single animal of any livestock species is kept, and wants RFID for every animal. There are millions of people who own a few chickens or goats, or raise a lamb or steer for themselves (or as a 4-H project) or have a horse. In these instances the premises the USDA wants to target with GPA surveillance are homes. NAIS would be intrusive to people who have done nothing more than own an animal, which is their right, under U.S. law. Forcing registration and having information about your private property (premises and animals) in a huge database is also a violation of the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments.

Property rights are protected by our Constitution. No one can be deprived of property without due process of law. But the NAIS says USDA can remove untagged animals from a premises, with no mention of compensation for the owner. Government does not have the right, according to the Constitution, to come onto your property to inspect or tag your animal.

Some states are starting to drag their feet on the NAIS plan, even a few of the states that were initially pushing ahead with premises registration. Representative Frank Nicely (Republican, Tennessee) introduced a bill that would let Tennessee opt out of the RFID cattle tracking system; he said the NAIS is not a good idea except for the people who are manufacturing radio tags.

With the rising opposition to NAIS, the USDA may not be as confident now about making all states implement the program, even with funding bribes, and has decided to address the NAIS in the 2007 Farm Bill. The bureaucrats and big business interests who designed the NAIS are now lobbying Congress to get the program implemented. A groundswell of opposition is also bombarding Congress, and this has become a hot political issue in recent months. USDA Secretary Johanns claims that USDA has the authority to make the system mandatory, even without Congress passing legislation to that effect, so it will be interesting to see how this drama unfolds.

Using Any Means to Gain the Goal

In the push to convince animal owners to use the ISO frequency chips or ear tags, facts have been ignored or twisted to influence people that this is a better system (in spite of its documented flaws and shortcomings) than our American chip frequency system, and we are also told it is the accepted universal, international system, when it is not. Even scarier than these distortions, half-truths and "spins," however, are efforts to coerce us into thinking that the only way to protect ourselves from foreign disease or bio-terrorism is to embrace the NAIS system in its entirety (100 percent cooperation).

On August 29, after an article appeared on the nonais.org website about the state of Vermont halting premises registration, a comment was left on the website from someone pretending to be a terrorist. The comment read: "Thanks, Vermont, for opening an avenue for those that wish to use animal disease as a bio-eco-terrorism tool. We would have tried to start along the SW border but that’s now just too obvious. Thanks! We’ll take the NE corner and work our way in that way. – ABET"

When a comment is made, however, the website software records the IP address of the commenter. The owner of the nonaois.org site was able to track it down, with some help from OrgAbuse personnel. The comment came from the USDA Office of Operations, Office of the Chief Information Officer. This raises several questions. Is someone in the USDA threatening terrorism in order to justify the NAIS? Is some disgruntled USDA employee unhappy that many farmers are not accepting the NAIS, after all the hard work on it? Would some stoop so low as to actually pose as terrorists (or worse, commit an act of terrorism that might be blamed on another country) to scare Americans into thinking we really need the NAIS? This is no idle concern, considering that in today’s world the control of food production has become political.

As stated by Leo M. Schwartz (Chairman of the Virginia Land Rights Coalition) in his July 7, 2006 article "National Animal ID," the NAIS has nothing to do with national security, disease control or food safety. "It is land, livestock and people regulation, an industrial, inventory-tracking and control scheme, and a ‘public- private partnership’ racket designed to license agriculture and bring the food supply system under the boot of centralized power. Regulatory burdens and costs, corporate monopolies, taxation and fees, liability, religious, property and privacy rights are serious concerns. But NAIS runs much deeper. Centralized control of agriculture is a mark of despotism," said Schwartz. He quoted Zimbabwe’s Marxist dictator, Robert Mugabe (who "nationalized" 95 percent of that country’s rural land and plunged Africa’s leading food producing nation into chaos) who said, "Absolute power is when a man is starving and you are the only one able to give him food." Food is power. Food is a weapon.

Schwartz raised questions about the UK’s outbreak of foot and mouth disease in 2001 in which some six million healthy sheep, cows, pigs and goats (including rare breeds) were slaughtered without justification, completely devastating British agriculture. Farmers were unable to defend their property, and the forced quarantine held them prisoner on their own land. British veterinarian Bob Michell later wrote, recalling the mass culling, "In the name of veterinary disease control we were about to embark on the greatest unnecessary slaughter of healthy animals in the history of our profession…and the unnecessary suffering of those on whose farms they lived, or whose livelihoods evaporated in the smoking pyres." The cost of all this, according to Schwartz was more than 12 billion pounds, 60 farmer suicides "and a nation further conditioned to accept the ‘security and safety’ of militarized police-state control."

A short article in the March 2002 issue of "Stockman Grass Farmer" stated, "British farmers may soon need a license to farm. Government officials in the U.K. said they are considering licensing proposals that would require livestock farmers to prove their competence. These measures are being proposed in light of last year’s Foot and Mouth Disease outbreak. Also, livestock farmers wanting to sell animal food may be required to buy insurance against loss from disease before they are allowed to trade…There is a growing feeling in Britain that the agricultural industry has escaped the professional checks required of other businesses, despite its often direct impact on human health." The noose was tightening to create more total regulation of farming.

What caused the outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease? Schwartz raised the question that others have raised, about a U.K. government bio-terrorism operation. "The bio-warfare research lab at Porton Down was reportedly ‘missing’ a vial of foot-and-mouth virus two months before the outbreak." How do we know our own government or someone within the agency might not use terrorism to force us into a more controlled system of agriculture, starting with a mandatory NAIS? This plan does nothing to protect the rights and independence of American farmers and ranchers nor to ensure a free and competitive market or a safe and plentiful food supply.

For more information on the NAIS and the various concerns about it, check out these websites: www.aphis.usda.gov and www.usda.gov/nais (for the NAIS plan), www.rfidnews.com (for info on the ISO development process and its shortcomings), www.animalagriculture.org (the NIAA website), for groups opposed to NAIS (and updates on what’s happening), check out www.nonais.org; www.farmandranchfreedom.org; www.libertyark.net; www.tofga.org; www.stopanimalid.org; www.noanimalid.org; www.FreeToFarm.com; www.nationalpropertyowners.org; www.Care2.com

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