Sen. Johanns urges Sec. Vilsack to rewrite USDA’s animal ID proposal

By Jon H. Harsch

© Copyright Agri-Pulse Communications, Inc.

Washington, March 17 – In a Senate floor speech Wednesday, Senator Mike Johanns (R-NE) urged Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack to abandon USDA’s latest plans for a revised National Animal Identification System (NAIS).

Johanns, who was Secretary of Agriculture during the last Bush administration, said that USDA’s Feb. 5 proposal for a new framework for animal disease traceability would effectively mandate animal ID while claiming to be a voluntary approach. He added that the proposal would make states, not USDA, responsible for the costs and hassles of running a very unpopular program. He also warned that with the new approach, ranchers would “spend more time trying to figure out how to comply with the USDA program than he or she will spend ranching.”

Johanns acknowledged that when he had Vilsack’s job at USDA, “I thought a mandatory approach might be necessary, and we listened and we studied it very closely. And then we went to the countryside, and we listened to farmers and ranchers, and what we heard overwhelmingly was, ‘Mike, do not make this a mandatory program.’” Johanns added that “producers already comply with a laundry list of federal regulations, and in this administration it grows by the day. They take numerous steps to ensure the safety of their animals. That is their livelihood.”

Rather than mandating “one more costly burden dictated on the rancher by the federal government,” Johanns said Vilsack should realize that with the cattle industry strongly opposed to animal ID, “it is a dead end.” He said producers have worked hard to understand the animal ID proposals and that “There is no repackaging that will convince them that another federal mandate is a good idea.”

Johanns charged that under the latest USDA proposal, “Producers are basically going to be forced to fully participate in the program, and I think the USDA knows it. If a potential buyer is from another state, there can be no deal unless the animal has the tracking number. This looks like a backdoor mandate that’s being packaged as something else. Worse yet, the package is being delivered and dropped on the doorstep of our states. So let’s face the facts, this so-called new animal ID plan is a mandatory system when it was promoted as a voluntary one.”

Johanns acknowledged the point made by USDA, House Agriculture Committee Chair Collin Peterson (D-MN) and other supporters of mandatory animal ID: that if the U.S. doesn’t catch up with other countries like Australia which have very effective, quick–response animal ID programs, U.S. producers will find the markets they can sell into increasingly limited. But Johanns said the choice of limiting their marketing opportunities should be left up to producers. He did not address another selling point for animal ID which has been heavily stressed by Collin Peterson: that an animal disease outbreak which could be quickly isolated through animal ID could instead become a national disaster, imposing huge economic costs over many years.

“The old NAIS system was not perfect. We always acknowledge that this is hugely complicated,” Johanns concluded, “but calling it voluntary and then leaving producers no real choice, that’s far from perfect. And, most importantly, it’s not a solution. I urge the USDA to reconsider.”

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