An End to Local Meat Sources?

two-tagged cowI am obsessed with farms and farmers markets. People that read my work probably know that by now. Did I mention that I sometimes go to three different farmers markets in a single week? One of the things I love is that in addition to fruits and veggies, my local farmers markets have vendors selling milk and cheese, whole chickens, eggs of various types and sizes, pork and beef. I don’t eat most of that stuff, but I love that it is there and that it comes from local farms.

Soon, however, there may not be meat at farmers markets, or meat raised by small farmers, at all. That’s because of the roll out of the National Animal ID System (NAIS), requiring farmers to attach radio frequency identification ear tags on cattle, dairy cows, pigs and chickens.

Ostensibly, the purpose of NAIS to track and stop outbreaks of diseases. It’s not that simple, though, according to David E. Gumpert & William Pentland writing for The Nation:

A handful of industry stakeholders have cast their shadow over nearly every component of NAIS–past, present and future. A consortium of industry leaders–Cargill Meat Solutions, Monsanto and Schering-Plough, among others–pushed for NAIS for more than a decade and finally won the USDA’s approval shortly after George W. Bush took office in 2001. The consortium, the National Institute for Animal Agriculture (NIAA), designed NAIS for the USDA and includes the USDA’s NAIS coordinator, Neil Hammerschmidt, among its alumni.

Critics contend NAIS will be the death knell for small farmers, some religious minorities and organic agriculture generally in America. Although the program will amplify American agriculture’s influence in global markets, it will give commercial agriculture an unprecedented monopoly on the future of food–a brave new era of synthetic agriculture and genetically engineered animals.

In addition, the resulting database won’t be managed by the government, but by private companies, some of which helped design the NAIS program as part of the Institute for Animal Agriculture (NIAA). Critics see this as a large flaw in the system, and also point to the use of the database to quell fears about meat from the offspring of cloned animals in the food supply. Such meat products will all be registered through the NAIS and thereby designated as safe, so long as there is no food borne pathogen outbreak.

While the federal NAIS program is voluntary, the USDA has been encouraging states to make the program mandatory for local farmers by offering federal funds. Farms that don’t complete forfeit their license to sell meat and dairy products. And the program may not even be effective in disease prevention, according to a General Accounting Office report from July 2007. Most nefarious, though, it punishes non-factory farms, when it is actually the factory farms that have been the causes of most food-borne disease like e-coli. Here’s how, say Gumpert and Pentland:

The risk of epidemics that spread between animals and humans has grown primarily because of the “inappropriate use of antibiotic drugs,” which has fostered the evolution of “resistant forms of bacterial disease,” according to a 2006 report by the Center for American Progress. An estimated 70 percent of antibiotic usage occurs in agriculture.


NAIS allows large factory farms whose animals spend their entire lives in feedlots to register large groups of animals as a single unit, but farms whose animals are not confined must register animals individually. As a result, most small farms could pay as much as $20 or $30 per animal to comply with NAIS, compared with $1 to $2 per animal for large farms.

“People don’t realize that they’re going to have to tag every single chicken,” says Gail Damerow, a Tennessee farmer who is editor of Rural Heritage magazine. “When you look at the cost of a chicken or goat and the cost of a tag, it’s not going to work economically.” Indeed, if the radio frequency tags cost $2 for a chicken that sells for $3 or $4, the thin margins that keep most small farms afloat will vanish. – The Nation

Essentially, small and free range farms are financially punished, while factory farms are rewarded. The result is likely to mean that small farms using sustainable practices to raise animals will be put out of business and locally raised meat and dairy products will disappear from farmers markets and specialty food stores.

March 16th ends the USDA public comment period on the National Animal ID System. You can have a say at http://lavidalocavore.org/showDiary.do?diaryId=1034 and let the USDA know what you think.

Image Credit: Food.change.org

  1. Melonie K.

    It’s also important to note that NAIS will affect families who do not even produce meat or meat-derived products for other individuals; even if the chickens, goats, or cattle are for their *own* consumption NAIS will affect them. So what will this do to citizens who are trying to become more self-sufficient or who are dealing with medical issues (such as cow’s milk allergies) by keeping their own small “homesteads” with smaller livestock?

    We used to be a much more self-sufficient country and were finally headed back toward that possibility thanks to the growth of the green energy and natural living ethics that are no longer “crunchy” or “fringe” – this could just blow that out of the water.

  2. Podchef

    Thanks so much for posting this. A lot of us have been fighting NAIS for years in the background, when no one would believe us that it was coming. I am so glad news of it’s evil and impact is finally getting out.

  3. Chelsea

    I’m happy to hear you want to maintain local meat and dairy sources, even though you don’t use those products much yourself. I think it’s important to allow consumers to have as many food options as possible. I have faith that if we do this, they will make the choices that make sense to them personally. However, allowing the government to over-regulate forces out important options.

  4. Marco Good

    In the name of public health and pathogen control, they force legislation, control, & compliance with their too-big-to-failure system which sabotages genetic diversity, crop rotation, and mineral balance which are centuries-proven principles of agriculture. The newly established petro-chemical based system of pest-control and monocultural vegetable and animal agriculture will never win co-operation by real farmers. Put me in jail if you must, assholes, but I will NEVER microchip my animals, spray chemicals on my crops. They don’t even know which of their (inevitably huge corporate) plants or “processing facilities” the contaminants come from. But it does originate in bad agricultural practices, which will not be eradicated by registration of anything.

  5. Leslie Berliant

    From what I have read, the hearings didn’t go well today for changing the program. 3 out of 4 people that testified supported NAIS. I spoke to a restaurant owner last night that sources from some of these small free-range farms and he had never heard of NAIS. I worry that a great opportunity may have been missed to engage the foodie community in this fight…

  6. M.W.

    From a journalistic perspective, this article took too many grafs to get to the main threat to small farmers – the price for tagging each animal. Organization, please! I almost gave up reading because I didn’t get the relevant information early enough.

  7. Podchef

    Leslie, I broached the NAIS two years ago at the IACP yearly conference in Seattle, with some of the biggest name chefs in the nation and no one wanted to listen. Time and again chefs & restaurant owners I’ve talked to just don’t get how it could affect them. Every one seems to have blinders on…

  8. Mrs. Michael Sabo

    Lets start with one segment and move forward. Here is what this small livestock owner (hey that’s me!) plans to do: Boycott Pork this month.

    Pork Producers of America – take notice.

    I Quit.

    I will no longer purchase United States Produced Pork. You’ve bullied, pushed, pulled, paid, coerced, cajoled, fear-mongered and just plain lied for the past 10 years.

    This 2009 National Junior Summer Spectacular Entry Form states so clearly your concept of the National Animal Identification System and the programs ability to crush small American Livestock Owners:


    i.e. “Premises ID# (mandatory)”

    Our family chooses to follow your recent advice “We Care” and carry ourselves back to the “other-other white meat” – locally grown small sustainable farm produced pork.

    We will just read the labels at the meat counter (thanks COOL) and drop a copy of this little letter at the Managers office on the way out as to
    why we will no longer purchase pork products at their store.

    National Pork Producers Council and State Pork Producers have chosen to contribute in forcing all livestock owners in the United States to comply for their greed through meat sales (import/export).

    As for your Mandatory Manipulation Meat – eat it yourself!

  9. Chuck

    So, here we are six months later…

    Where are the federal agents that are supposed to be patrolling our farmers markets and kicking in our greenhouse doors?

    It would seem this was all a lot of “Big Government” fear. Or has it not taken hold yet?

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