Federal plans to track livestock and poultry from birth to butcher shop took a hit Monday as senators from Montana and Wyoming gutted the program's funding.
Unanimously, the Senate Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee cut half the funding for the controversial National Animal Identification System. NAIS would require everyone from large cattle operations to backyard chicken owners to tag livestock and regularly report those animals' whereabouts to the government.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture asserts that such a system would allow farm regulators to easily locate sources of disease in the nation's food supply and identify animals that have been potentially exposed. The USDA has spent several years and $142 million developing the program.
Western farmers and ranchers have been adamantly opposed to the program, which they consider overreaching and unworkable. Monday's amendment to cut NAIS funding in half was co-sponsored by Sens. Jon Tester, D-Mont., and Mike Enzi, R-Wyo.
Tester said the funding cut drives a stake into the program's heart. He has repeatedly said that real food safety needs to begin in packing plants and not on farms and ranches. "This basically cuts funding by $7.3 million," Tester said. "It basically kind of does what I want to have done, which is take some of the steam out of this program."
Enzi said the amendment allows reasonable funding for voluntary identification program without burdening ranchers. He noted that House lawmakers deleted all funding for NAIS. A July attempt to do the same in the Senate failed.
Ranch groups in both states counted the amendment as a victory but said more might have to be done.
"This has Tester over the chest of NAIS with the stake in his hand and the hammer halfway toward a good swing, which is much better," said Dan Teigan of the Western Organization of Resource Councils.
Teigan said NAIS threatened to deliver so much cattle information to the government and meatpackers that ranchers would have difficulty negotiating fair cattle prices.
Wyoming rancher Judy McCullough said NAIS would be invasive and unnecessary. Ranches had to be registered under the plan and subject to government inspection, which she and other members of the Independent Cattlemen of Wyoming opposed. Branding in Wyoming covers the state's identification needs, she said.
"You know, we have branding laws in the state of Wyoming, and they can trace back a cow in about two hours," McCullough said. "And we like it because a hot-iron brand can't be removed.
"If we go with this NAIS, then we got that national database that nobody wants and government control. Worst of all, you're signing away your property rights. We don't like that."
Most groups opposed to NAIS represent people with range animals. Program rules would require the animals' every movement from pasture to pasture to be reported.
Newborns would have to be tagged and reported within a day. An animal dead from illness or predator attack would have to be reported in 24 hours.
Proponents, such as the American Veterinary Medical Association, contend that extensive identification would protects consumer and minimize livestock loss.
At present, the program is voluntary.
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