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Please begin with an informative title:

Today marked a major victory in a six-year-long struggle by small farmers in the US. I’m betting, dear reader, that you don’t have any idea what I’m talking about.

The Department of Agriculture decided today to drop NAIS (the National Animal Identification System). This was a voluntary program to identify and track meat and dairy animals wherever they went in the country.

NAIS was started in 2004 by the Bush Administration after a cow with mad cow disease was discovered in Washington State. To non-farmers, this may seem like a sensible measure, but remind yourself, you don’t know a lot of detail about how the meat you buy winds up in that plastic-wrapped Styrofoam container at the supermarket--or on the shish-kebab stick on that whole wheat pita at the Arab takeout place.

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[Crossposted from Fire on the Mountain.]

1. Agribusiness and factory farms in particular were the big advocates of NAIS. Why? They are the big exporters of US-raised meat and poultry, and having the certified tracking process in place would help overcome legal barriers to US-raised meat being sold to, say, safety conscious European countries and Japan. The law was written so that huge herds of chickens and pigs (though not cows) raised to be processed at the same facility only needed one identification number between them. (On the other hand, agribusiness and the Bush administration also waged a fierce campaign to ban individual farmers from testing all their cows for the disease, because then the big packers might have to do it, or risk losing market share.)

2. Meanwhile, NAIS was hugely expensive for small farmers at a time when the economic crunch on many is near unbearable. (Read, for instance, this harrowing recent story of a NY State farmer’s suicide). A small farmer, who slaughtered some hogs, sold some at auction, and kept some as breeding stock would have to tag each one individually. Consider someone like my partner Dody--she and her five kids among them raise in any given year meat chickens, laying hens,meat cows, milk cows, meat goats, milk goats, sheep and pigs, all for family consumption and some small-scale local sale, mostly to acquaintances. They would have to permanently tag each animal and to fill out extensive paperwork when, say, Jay in Connecticut gives one milker to his sister Kate, who recently moved to Maine.

3. Farmers were convinced, with good reason that a “voluntary” NAIS today was likely to become government-mandated tomorrow, which was the plan when it was first proposed. Further, they knew that if any disease did show up at big slaughterhouses, blame would quickly be kicked back upstream to the party least able to defend him or herself, the small farmer, never mind that the big commercial feedlots where animals are prepared for butchering are vast breeding grounds for all sorts of pathogens.

So how did NAIS get knocked out? A combination of--let’s call it civil refusal--and old-fashioned protest. When Obama’s Agriculture Secretary, Tom Vilsak, took office, he knew that NAIS was failing badly. The Department had been bombarded by petitions and letters. Congresscritters from rural districts were passing on the earful they had got from constituents. The government had dropped $142 million setting up, promoting and running the program, and only got a 40% buy-in from farmers and ranchers. And most of that was on paper rather than a working system.

Vilsak traveled around country to meetings and heard from agribusiness mouthpieces—and from hundreds of ripshit angry farmers and ranchers. Kentucky farmer and farm activist Adam Barr told one listening session:

NAIS needs to be scrapped and we need to start over. The new program should look at industrial food production, which is the source of animal disease and food-borne illness. A clear distinction should be made between factory farms and those pasture-based family farms. Industrial ag may need this program. We should let them have it. Small-scale producers for a local market do not need this program, and if it moves forward, we would like full exemption for these producers.
Vilsak announced today that a new identification program will be developed and the USDA website has an FAQ about it which proclaims:
Animals not moved out of state, as well as small producers who raise animals to feed themselves, their families and their neighbors, are not a part of the framework's scope and focus.
See, a victory for mass resistance to big capital! And under the radar of the traditional and urban left in this country. And not for the first time. Keep them peepers open, folks!

[This diary owes a great deal to the reporting of Jill Richardson at the excellent La Vida Locavore website.]

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Originally posted to lao hong han on Fri Feb 05, 2010 at 08:10 PM PST.

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