Americans were revolted by the images from a Humane Society video of cows at a meat packing plant being abused with electric prods and even dragged by tractors because they were too weak or sick to stand up. The outrage grew as parents learned that meat from the Hallmark/Westland plant in California had gone into lunches served by the federal School Lunch Program across the country. Our children deserve better.
And some school districts are taking action to provide better food for our kids. The rapidly-growing farm-to-school movement has been working to bring local, healthy, and sustainably-raised foods into the schools and reconnect children with the source of their food. As the evidence mounts about the nutrition and safety of grass-fed meats, some schools have started to integrate these animal products into their farm-to-school programs or source organic meats.
But it looks like Congress may cripple this important movement. In June, Congresswoman DeLauro (D-CT) inserted a provision into the House Agriculture Appropriations bill that would force schools to buy meat that come from sources enrolled in the National Animal Identification System (NAIS). NAIS is a three-step program that calls for every person who owns even one livestock or poultry animal to register their property, tag each animal when it leaves its birthplace, and report a long list of movements to a database within 24 hours. The listed species include chickens, horses, cows, sheep, goats, pigs, llamas, alpacas, elk, deer, bison, turkeys, and more, whether or not the animal is used for food.
Because of the costs and intrusions of the program, NAIS is extremely controversial among family farmers and has met with strong resistance from the local and sustainable foods movement. Confinement operations and massive corporate operations get essentially a free ride through provisions for “group identification,” which would not be available to most family farms. The industry organizations who helped create the program carefully provided that group or lot identification would only be allowed where animals are managed as a group from birth to death and never commingled with animals outside of their production system, a practice that is essentially limited to confinement operations (CAFOs) and vertically integrated corporate operations. Family farmers stuck with tagging every animal (in most cases, with electronic identification) and reporting their movements would quickly be crushed by the expense, paperwork burdens, and potential fines for any failure to comply with this complex program.
This program is precisely the opposite of what is needed to improve our food safety. Not only does it provide incentives for CAFOs, but it fails to address the main source of food-borne illnesses – poor practices at the packing plants and food processing facilities. In the Hallmark/Westland beef recall, the problem was that the packing plant broke the law governing “downer” cattle and the USDA inspectors didn’t properly inspect the plant. In the Humane Society’s video, every time there was a clear shot of a cow’s left ear, you could see a tag! Changing the type of tag to an NAIS electronic tag would do nothing to address the problem. Instead, we need to focus our efforts – and tax dollars – on better enforcement of our existing laws and thorough inspections.
The House Agriculture Appropriations bill with this provision has temporarily stalled and is not moving ahead. In the meantime, though, the Senate Appropriations Committee intends to take up its version of the Agriculture Appropriations bill this week, with a hearing scheduled for Thursday, July 17. If family farms are to thrive and be able to provide healthy foods for consumers – including children – it’s critical that the Senate not follow the House’s example.
Please contact Senator Byrd (D-WV) and Senator Cochran (R-MS), the Chair and Ranking Member of the Senate Appropriations Committee, to tell them you want true food safety and thriving family farms, not NAIS. And use the Action link below to send a message to your Senator! For more information about NAIS and family farms, including contact information for the Senate Appropriations Committee, visit www.farmandranchfreedom.org