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National Animal ID System

Threat to Personal Privacy & Small Farm Viability

By Mary Zanoni Ph.D., J.D.

P.O. Box 501, Canton, NY 13617



Last issue’s “Scribblings” column raised several issues about the wisdom of the National Animal Identification System (NAIS). As executive director of Farm for LifeTM, a sustainable-farming support group, I have been studying the possible effects of the NAIS for several months. My conclusion is that the NAIS will be extremely damaging to smaller farmers and to all rural citizens who keep any sort of livestock for their own use or as companion animals. Moreover, the damage to personal privacy that would result from the NAIS would harm all citizens.

NAIS To Be Mandatory Unless Farmers (And Others) Stop It

In April 2005, the USDA published a Draft Strategic Plan (Plan) and Draft Program Standards (Standards) concerning the NAIS which unequivocally state that the USDA intends to make the NAIS mandatory by January 2008. (Plan, pp. 2, 10; Standards, p. 1.)2 (The Plan and Standards can be downloaded from www.usda.gov/nais.) The NAIS principally was developed by a private industry association, the National Institute for Animal Agriculture (NIAA). Prominent NIAA participants are the largest meat-industry corporations, and the manufacturers and marketers of high-tech animal ID equipment. Beginning in 2002, the NIAA used 9/11 and subsequently the BSE scares to lobby the USDA for a nationwide, all-livestock registration and tracking system.

NAIS To Force Livestock Owners To Submit to Surveillance

The NAIS would require two types of mandatory registration.

First, premises registration would require every person who owns even one horse, cow, pig, chicken, sheep, pigeon, or virtually any livestock animal, to register their home, including owner’s name, address, and telephone number, and keyed to Global Positioning System coordinates (for satellite-assisted surveillance of homes and farms), in a federal database under a 7-digit “premises ID number.” (Standards, pp. 3-4, 10-12; Plan, p. 5.) The NAIS even goes so far as to apply to owners of “clams,” stocked fish such as “catfish,” “striped bass” or “trout,” and “shrimp” or “scallops”. These species are specifically included in the Standards (p. 15) and in the USDA’s “Technical Supplement to Draft Program Standards” (July 26, 2005, pp. 12-13.)

Second, individual animal identification will require owners to obtain a 15-digit ID number, also to be kept in the federal database, for any animal that ever leaves the premises of its birth. Thus, even if you are raising animals only for your own food, you will have to obtain an individual ID to send animals to a slaughterhouse, to sell or buy animals, to obtain stud service. (Large-scale producers will be allowed to identify, e.g., large groups of pigs or broilers raised and processed together by a single group ID number. However, owners raising single animals or a small number, under most circumstances will have to identify each animal individually for purposes of slaughter, sale, or breeding.) If you own a non-food animal such as a horse, you would need individual ID if you ever left your property for shows or trail rides. The form of ID will most likely be a tag or microchip containing a Radio Frequency Identification Device, designed to be read from a distance. (Plan, p. 10; Standards, pp. 6, 12, 20, 27-28.) In addition to this “electronic identification,” the USDA will allow “industry” to decide whether to require the use of “retinal scan” and “DNA” identification for all animals. (Plan, p. 13.)

Within this system, for animals subject to individual animal identification, the animal owner would be required to report: the birthdate of an animal, the application of every animal’s ID tag, every time an animal leaves or enters the property, every time an animal loses a tag, every time a tag is replaced, the slaughter or death of an animal, or if any animal is missing. Such events must be reported within 24 hours. (Standards, pp. 12-13, 17-21.) The USDA plans “enforcement” to ensure compliance with the NAIS. (Standards, p. 7; Plan, p. 17.) The USDA has not yet specified the nature of this “enforcement,” but presumably it would include fines and/or seizure of animals.

A more recent development is a movement, spearheaded by the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association (NCBA), to “privatize” the database which will contain all the premises and animal identification information and tracking information. As reported in Lancaster Farming, Aug. 6, 2005, p. E 22, the NCBA has lobbied the House Agriculture Committee to urge the USDA to put the NAIS database administration into the control of a private industry group, to be chosen by the NCBA itself. As explained below, such “privatization” will only worsen the prospects for invasion of privacy and economic pressures on small farmers and homesteaders.

NAIS: Another Personal Privacy Invasion Enabled By RFID Tags

Livestock producers have been concerned that the confidentiality of the huge amount of business and personal information to be gathered in the NAIS database will not be protected. This concern is well-founded. It will be very difficult, if not impossible, to exempt the database from Freedom of Information Act requests, or from discovery in lawsuits.3 Moreover, the potential privatization of the NAIS will surely result in the same gross abuses already evident in private databases of financial information-the sale of citizens’ most personal data, without their knowledge, to the highest bidder; and the vulnerability of citizens’ information to hackers and thieves, because the President and Congress have utterly failed to subject the powerful private data industry to long-needed protections for citizens’ privacy.

However, there is an even more fundamental concern with privacy: the rapidly expanding use of RFID technology to track citizens’ movements and behavior. The following verifiable instances of RFID tracking are already being implemented, even though most Americans are still unaware of this threat to privacy.

  • Tracking of U.S. Citizens’ Movements by RFID Chips in Passports. In October 2005, the State Department announced that, beginning in early 2006, passports will include RFID chips containing personal information and a digitized photograph of the passport holder. The State Department promulgated this RFID chip requirement despite the potential for the chips to be read remotely by unauthorized persons and despite the universal opposition of privacy groups to the chips. (www.networkworld.com/news/2005/102605-rfid-passport.html)
  • Tracking of schoolchildren by RFID identity cards. In early 2005, a California school district, working with a company that markets RFID tracking devices, began forcing all students to wear RFID tags at all times while in school, tracking the students’ movements throughout the building. This was done without the knowledge or consent of parents. The parents, who learned that their children were being tracked only when the children came home wearing the RFID badges, objected strenuously. Due to the parents’ objections, this particular tracking program was terminated. However, there remains the danger that other schools or institutions will be persuaded by RFID marketers to adopt similar programs. (www.epic.org/privacy/rfid/children.html)
  • Tracking of purchases and possession of consumer goods by hidden RFID tags. For several years large retailers, led by Wal-Mart, have mandated that their suppliers use RFID tags on shipping pallets and containers to track the locations of the merchandise at all times. Privacy advocates have been concerned about the potential for the RFID tags to be placed on individual items. These individual tags will allow retailers or other marketing interests to track consumers wearing or carrying such items. The pending development of RFID readers that can operate at an extended distance would also allow marketers, the government, or even nosy neighbors to determine what items are within a citizen’s home.

In July 2004, in a hearing before the House Committee on Energy and Commerce, Linda M. Dillman, Executive Vice President and Chief Information Officer of Wal-Mart, downplayed such privacy concerns, stating that RFID tagging of individual items was “at least 10 years away.” (http://energycommerce.house.gov/108/Hearings/07142004hearing1337/Dillman2146.htm) However, Wal-Mart was selling individually RFID-tagged items within a few months of Dillman’s testimony. (www.spychips.com) Individually RFID-tagged items, without any notice to consumers, were being sold at an Eckerd drug store by early 2005. (Personal observation of the author.)

  • Tracking of people’s medical information or location when, either voluntarily or by order of a parent or legal guardian, microchips are placed under the skin. Since 2002, the VeriChip company has been developing electronically-readable microchips for use in people. VeriChip is promoting these devices as a means for finding lost children or Alzheimer’s patients, or a means for medical personnel to secure health-related information in an emergency. Of course, bracelets, dog tags, or simple alert caretaking are perfectly adequate solutions to issues of availability of medical history or lost people, without the enormous potential for invasion of privacy that is inherent in making human microchipping “acceptable.” Nonetheless, VeriChip claims to have sold some 2,000 human microchips. VeriChip’s latest marketing effort involves offering free microchips for the residents of a Chattanooga, Tennessee home for the disabled. Advocates for the disabled are opposing this microchipping of people who, because of their disabilities, cannot give informed consent. (National Public Radio, “All Things Considered,” broadcast on 11/12/2005; see also www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyld=4800061)

In this context, we can see the planned RFID-tagging, microchipping, and/or retinal scanning and DNA testing of all livestock as just part of a larger agenda. Both government and private industry are relentlessly pursuing a host of initiatives that would record and preserve forever every detail of what citizens buy and own, where they go, with whom they associate.

The NAIS plan is a compulsory registration with the government of all people who want to raise their own animal foods. Concededly, the Bill of Rights does not contain a constitutional amendment specifically to protect one’s right to produce one’s own food. But that is only because the generation of the Founders could never have imagined that American government could evolve into a system that would compel citizens to in effect ask for government permission to produce their own food.

Further, consider that livestock animals are legally a form of personal property. It is unprecedented for the United States government to conduct large-scale computer-aided surveillance of its citizens simply because they own a common type of property. (The only exceptions are registration of motor vehicles and guns, due to their clear inherent dangers-but they are registered at the state level, not by the federal government. Moreover, those registration systems predate the widespread use of personal computers and the development of the Internet, so even the car and gun registration systems were never intended as the widespread threat to privacy and freedom that they have become today.) Surveillance of small-scale livestock owners is like the government subjecting people to surveillance for owning a couch, a tv, a lawnmower, or any item of personal property.

NAIS: Economic Threat To Small & Mid-Size Farms

The NIAA and USDA claim two principal benefits of the NAIS: first, enhancing export markets for U.S. livestock products; and second, allowing traceback to farms of animals’ origin when animal diseases (such as BSE) are found. These “benefits” are of no use to most small farmers and homesteaders. Small farmers and homesteaders sell to their neighbors or consume their animal products themselves-they don’t profit from “export markets.” Small farmers and homesteaders raise their animals in natural and healthy conditions-usually on pasture, with minimal home-raised or organic grain, with plenty of space for exercise and dispersal of waste-to assure that problems like BSE and bacterial contamination won’t occur in the home-raised animals destined for their own tables.

The NAIS will create an unfair economic burden on small farmers and homesteaders, because animal owners will bear the costs of property and animal registration. As the USDA frankly admits, “there will be costs to producers” (Plan, p. 11); “private funding will be required. . . . Producers will identify their animals and provide necessary records to the databases. . . . All groups will need to provide labor.” (Plan, p. 14.) In sum, there is no realistic chance of government funding to cover the costs of the program once it is established, and animal owners will have to pay the tab for premises registration fees, individual animal ID fees, reporting fees for events such as animals leaving a given premises or being slaughtered, and for equipment such as RFID tags, tag readers, or software needed to report to the database. The proposed privatization of the NAIS would only worsen the economic burden, since a private database holder would certainly want to make some profit from the system.

The NAIS would also, in fact, lessen rather than improve the security of America’s animal foods. The NAIS is touted by the USDA and agricorporations as a way to make our food supply “secure” against diseases or terrorism. However, most people instinctively understand that real food security comes from raising food yourself or buying from a local farmer you actually know. The USDA plan will only stifle local sources of production through over-regulation and additional costs. Ultimately, if the NAIS goes into effect, more consumers will have to buy food produced by the large-scale industrial methods which multiply the effects of any food safety and disease problems. Moreover, the NAIS system will create opportunities for havoc, such as the deliberate introduction of diseased animals into premises containing large numbers of a given species.

The NAIS “traceback” system would be much less effective against BSE than a system of testing every slaughtered cow. Europe and Japan perform testing of every cow. The USDA has refused such testing; but surely the testing would be less expensive than a huge tracking system covering every cow, horse, donkey, llama, alpaca, pig, sheep, goat, pigeon, chicken, duck, farmed fish, etc., etc.

Moreover, the NAIS system would be of no use at all in dealing with the most common types of meat contamination in the U.S., the occurrence of pathogens such as listeria or E. coli in processed meat. One example of such contamination can be found at www.fsis.usda.gov/Fsis_recalls, 2005 recalls nos. 033-2005 and 040-2005. Those incidents involved over one million pounds (enough to serve at least 4 million people) of ground beef contaminated with coliform bacteria, distributed nationwide by a single processor. Such instances of contamination are not discovered until the meat has been distributed into the supply chain. Assuming that a cow yields 500 pounds of ground meat, the one million pounds in the foregoing recalls represent meat from over 2,000 cows. There is no way to identify individual cows from one million pounds of hamburger; no way to tell if any contamination came from a cow, multiple cows, or from the processing itself; and no benefit to consumer safety in such a situation from the NAIS system. In sum, when meat becomes contaminated at a large packing plant, millions of consumers in all 50 states can be exposed to the dangerous product. In contrast, an incident of impaired food at a small-scale farm or local processor might affect only a few dozen consumers in a single county. Thus, by encouraging increased consolidation of the meat industry, the NAIS would actually make America’s food supply more unstable and less safe.

How Small Farmers Can Affect The Future Of The NAIS

The USDA presently does not plan to finalize its rules to establish mandatory ID until the summer of 2006. As stated above, individual states, such as Wisconsin, may be planning earlier implementation, but even in such states, widespread objection by animal owners can still affect whether plans become permanent and whether reasonable exceptions may be established.

First, small-scale livestock owners should not participate in any so-called “voluntary” state or federal program to register farms or animals. The USDA is using farmers’ supposed willingness to enter a “voluntary” program as a justification for making the program mandatory. (See Plan, “Executive Summary” and pp. 7-8.) If a state or extension official urges registration of your premises or livestock, question them about whether the registration is mandatory or voluntary and about any deadline for registration; and ask them for a copy of the legislation or rule establishing any claimed authority to require such registration.

Second, animal owners should contact breed associations, organic and sustainable farming organizations, or general farming interest groups and ask them to oppose the NAIS. Also ask such organizations to start or support campaigns of letter-writing to officials and of commenting on the USDA rules scheduled to be issued in summer 2006 (and any similar state rules). Although the majority of livestock-industry groups have been supporting the NAIS concept up until now, that support may erode as the inherent problems of the NAIS become more obvious. For example, the Livestock Marketing Association, the main industry group representing auctions, recently announced that its members will not take part in the NAIS in the absence of government funding and assistance. (U.S. Farm Report, broadcast of 11/13/2005.)

Third, animal owners can individually write their federal and state legislators. You can find contact information for both federal and state officials through www.vote-smart.org or through the federal government’s site, www.firstgov.gov. Remember, the conventional wisdom is that individual letters sent by postal mail carry more weight than e-mails or signing on to form letters. But any input is more useful than no input, so if you don’t have time for an individual letter, use e-mail, telephone, group petitions, or any means you can. Also remember that both individual initiative and group initiatives count, so even after you have sent a letter, continue, if you can, to respond to calls for action asking you to send additional messages to government officials.

In particular, the USDA’s planned issuance of a NAIS rule for public comment in July 2006 will be a crucial juncture. Be aware of press coverage or action alerts at that time, and when you hear that the public comment period on a NAIS rule is open, please take the time to submit an individual comment.

Finally, if the time comes when the NAIS (or a state equivalent) is about to go into effect as presently planned, and you feel your rights are being violated, you can contact groups that may provide legal representation without cost. Some sources of information to try are: (1) Farmers’ Legal Action Group, www.flaginc.org, 651-223-5400; (2) the American Civil Liberties Union, www.aclu.org; for the ACLU in your state, see the pull-down menu on the bottom of that page, under “your local ACLU”; (3) The Rutherford Institute, www.rutherford.org, 434-978-3888; and (4) www.abanet.org/legalservices/findlegalhelp/home.cfm, the American Bar Association’s guide to legal services.

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