Judith McGeary on The Problem with NAIS

Sequatchie Valley Farm

Creative Commons License photo credit: The Patriot 1776

The Real Impacts of the National Animal Identification System on Our Food Supply – and How You Can Make a Difference

Swine flu, salmonella poisonings, massive recalls.  With all of the threats to our food supply and health, a nationwide program to safeguard livestock probably sounds good to a lot of people.  The USDA has a program tailor-made to increase consumer confidence: the National Animal Identification System (NAIS).  But while talking about the need to calm consumers’ fears about the food supply, USDA admits that NAIS is not a “food safety program.”  In fact, if you dig a little, you find that NAIS will actually harm food safety.  How can a program that sounds so good on the surface actually hurt you?  It’s simple: NAIS will destroy your choices about where your food comes from.

This article will first explain what NAIS is and what impact it will have on you, an American farmer, animal owner, or simply consumer.  If you care about having a safe food supply, and choice about where your food comes from, then check out the last section, which has information on you can take action in the coming weeks!

NAIS Basics

NAIS was developed by large industrial-agriculture associations and technology companies in the 1980s and 1990s.  NAIS would require every person who owns even one livestock animal to submit to extensive government regulation and surveillance. NAIS covers anyone who owns even one chicken, horse, cow, sheep, goat, pig, turkey, guinea, elk, deer, bison, or other livestock or poultry – even if the animal is simply a pet or for your own food supply.

The first step is registration of one’s property with the state and federal governments. The next phases of NAIS call for tagging each animal with a 15-digit identification number, in most cases using electronic identification, and reporting their movements to a database within 24 hours.  Large factory farms would be able to avoid most of the labor and expense by using group identification.  But the burdens for small farmers, in both time and money, would drive many grass-based farmers out of business, and consumers would lose much of their access to nutrient-dense animal foods.

The USDA’s original plan for NAIS, released in May 2005, called for the program to become mandatory after an initial voluntary period. After a public outcry, USDA changed course and said that NAIS was “voluntary at the federal level,” even as it continued to fund mandatory and coercive State implementation.  And now USDA appears to be planning, again, to make NAIS mandatory.

Why Should You Care?

When people first hear of NAIS, many think that it is an issue only for those people who own livestock animals.  But the true impact goes much further.  NAIS affects the food supply and therefore every single person.

All of us are familiar with the refrain: Diversify your investments.  We are told that it is the key to economic security, that we should never put all our eggs in one basket.  And yet our actual eggs come from a very small handful of corporations that operate highly concentrated operations!  Large and corporate farms account for 92% of all hog production and 96% of all poultry production in this country.  Between 80 and 90 percent of grain-fed beef cattle production is concentrated in less than 5 percent of the nation’s feedlots. What would happen if just a few of these facilities suffered a natural disaster? Or contamination, whether by terrorists or just someone who wanted to make trouble (remember the Tylenol tampering)?  Or the companies decided to cooperate in illegally fixing prices?  A handful of corporations have an almost complete monopoly on the food supply for the majority of Americans.

And then there’s the issue of nutrition.  The organic food market, established and still driven by small farmers, is growing rapidly because of the scientifically supported health benefits in eating foods that have been raised without harmful chemicals and in a manner that increases the vitamin, mineral, and nutrient content. Grass-fed meats, from animals that are not part of the high-density feedlot system, provide myriad benefits: low fat, increased Omega-3 fatty acids, increased beta carotenes, increased Vitamin E content, etc.  These nutritious foods are not available from companies seeking to raise animals at the lowest cost possible.  They are produced by small, entrepreneurial farms.  Local foods provide environmental benefits as well, improving the health of the land and reducing our reliance on foreign oil to ship foods globally.  When you buy food at a local farmers’ market, you support the local economy.  And you can look in the eye of the farmer who produced your food.  You know where it came from.

Food security and quality both rest with diversified, local farms. The ability to choose what food you eat – what you put into your body to nourish it – only exists if you have options.  Even those who choose to buy their foods from the corporations at mainstream groceries benefit from the simple existence of alternatives. As in any marketplace, the presence of even a small group producing a new product can change the larger market.  Organic food was once available only in specialty stores.  Now mainline groceries sell it.  So the continued ability of small farmers to raise food affects every person.  But the NAIS threatens to destroy this diversity in our food supply.

Many who choose to farm are independent individuals who seek less involvement with the government, not more.  Imagine if people were told that they had to register their toolbox and report every time they bought a new hammer, lent a tool to their neighbor, or threw one out because it was too old.  The prospect of this level of government intrusion is enough to cause many of our farmers to get out of the business. No small farmer does it for the money; we do it because of a passion for the land, for food, and for people.  It’s a way of life, not a job.  And when the government intrusion reaches a level that fundamentally conflicts with our way of life, many will quit.

Even those that are willing to endure the government intrusion for the sake of continuing to farm will face significant hurdles.  If it is made mandatory, the NAIS will require each person to register their property with the government, individually tag and identify each animal (in most cases with electronic identification), and report all kinds of “events” to a database.  The NAIS will apply to everyone who owns even one of the listed species: horses, chickens, cows, goats, sheep, pigs, deer, elk, bison, turkeys, pigeons, even fish ponds.  Small local farms, hobby farmers, and homesteaders – even people who own just a few chickens because they like fresh eggs – will all be burdened with these government requirements.

The NAIS was designed by and for large corporate agri-businesses. The issue of economies of scale, investment capital, and labor costs mean that the small farmers will face much greater challenges complying with the NAIS than will these large businesses.  For example, what will be the cost of the RFID tags when purchased in small quantities rather than 1,000 tag lots?  Unlike large, corporate farms that employ cheap, migrant (and frequently illegal) labor, small farmers provide their own labor or pay fair wages to local workers – so how much will it cost for the labor to actually apply each of those tags to each animal?  What about those $1,000 scanners for reading the tags?  We’ve been reassured by government officials that each farmer will not have to own their own scanner — enterprising people will undoubtedly establish businesses, scanning and recoding tags for the farmers.  How much will those services cost?   And don’t forget that the factory confinement farms for poultry and hogs will be able to use group ID numbers, thereby avoiding individual tags, and reaping a huge savings in both time and money compared to small farmers.

For some farmers, the program simply is not feasible, regardless of cost.  For example, consider the case of a farmer who has 100 laying hens in a movable shelter in the pasture.  These laying hens are of different ages and were purchased as day-old chicks from different “premises of origin,” so that they do not qualify for a group identification number; they must therefore be assigned individual identification numbers and physically tagged.  One day, the farmer finds a pile of feathers in the pasture, where a coyote or other predator carried one of the hens away.  The farmer will now have to catch each of the 99 remaining chickens and note their identification numbers so that he can report which chicken has gone missing.  The farmer will be faced with the option of breaking the law or spending all of his time simply counting the chickens. Farmers raising cattle and sheep will have to tag their animals with duplicate tags, to ensure traceability if one tag is lost (a rather common occurrence when animals are out on pasture), and file reports for every sale, joint grazing agreement, or death, even if they are simply processing an animal for their neighbor.  There aren’t enough hours in the day for this program, on top of the real work a farmer has to do.

What can you do?

Key members of Congress are pushing for a mandatory NAIS.  And it looks like USDA is planning exactly that.  But there is a chance to stop this train!  USDA is holding listening sessions in seven states, to get public input. The meetings are between May 14 and June 1, in: Harrisburg, Pennsylvania; Pasco, Washington; Austin, Texas; Birmingham, Alabama; Louisville, Kentucky; Storrs, Connecticut; and Greeley, Colorado.   Details about the meetings – locations, times, registering, etc – are posted at www.FarmandRanchFreedom.org

We need a lot of people to come to these meetings!  You don’t have to speak – just come and show your support for small farmers.  You can bring a very short written statement; it can be as simple as “I am a consumer who wants the choice to buy from local farmers.  I urge USDA not to implement NAIS, and to focus its regulatory efforts on CAFO’s and imported foods.”  Or write a longer statement.  The key is to show up and participate!

You can also submit comments online at: http://www.regulations.gov/fdmspublic/component/main?main=DocketDetail&d=APHIS-2009-0027

Those who own livestock animals are a tiny portion of the population and cannot carry this battle by ourselves.  And we shouldn’t have to.  Our food supply is important to everyone, and every American has a stake in who wins this fight.

Judith McGeary is a small farmer and attorney in Austin, Texas, and the Executive Director of the Farm and Ranch Freedom Alliance.  She has a B.S. in Biology from Stanford University and a J.D. with high honors from The University of Texas at Austin. Her legal practice has focused on environmental law, commercial litigation, and appeals. She and her husband run a small farm with horses, cattle, sheep, and poultry. For more information, go to www.farmandranchfreedom.org or call 1-866-687-6452.

Only Consumers Can Stop NAIS

Only Consumers Can Stop NAIS

This post is part of the Fight Back Fridays Blog Carnival, see more great articles on food and farming here.


  1. Great article and thanks much for sharing the atrocities of this program with the general public so people can understand what is really going on. I am very concerned about this issue, and I hope everyone else will become aware and get active about it too. Here’s the post I wrote earlier this week on my Health Tip of the Day site:


    Raine Saunders’s last blog post..Changing the Face of School Lunches – There’s Still a Lot of Work to Do

  2. Great article! And I need to meet Ms. McGeary, as I live in Leander. 🙂

    NAIS is really something we should all be up in arms about. It really is going too far!

    Thanks for joining today’s Fight Back Fridays carnival.

    (AKA FoodRenegade)

    FoodRenegade’s last blog post..NuVal Nutritional Scores At The Grocery Store

  3. I worry for my raw milk and pastured meat suppliers if this were to go into effect. It’s really unfortunate our government can’t come up with a constructive way to improve food safety (something we clearly need given the latest round of outbreaks, recalls, etc.) without taking it too far.

    Julie’s last blog post..Piima Yogurt Starter

  4. It’s great to find a comment by Raine on this blog – ours is a small, passionate world! I plan to take the day off and head up to Hartford to comment on NAIS. Judith – thank you sooooo much for writing this simple, clear explanation of what seems to be very complicated proposed legislation. Kimberly, thanks for sharing Judith’s words. I especially appreciated the image of catching chickens (much easier at night while they’re sleeping, BTW) to count up missing bodies. Fox, raccoons and other predators are just some of the perils faced by small diversified farmers – we certainly don’t want our federal government to become the worst among them. Talk about a wolf in sheep’s clothing!

  5. Kimberly, thanks for giving me the chance to post on your blog!

    Kristen, I hope to meet you at the May 20th listening session in Austin! Can you help spread the word in your area? I’ve got a flyer posted on our website, http://www.FarmAndRanchFreedom.org

  6. I’m with Julie: it really concerns me when it comes to our raw dairy and pastured meat supplier. They’re small and this would be a major hurdle for them. The government needs to go after the problem (agribusiness), not the solution (real food and family farms). But I guess our lobby just isn’t as big. 🙁

    Jenny @ NourishedKitchen’s last blog post..Get the Most from Your Farmers Market: 10 Tips from a Market Manager

  7. Thanks for posting Kimberly and great article Judith! Another important point that most people are missing is the huge cost of enforcing NAIS. Most of this cost would be associated with keeping track of small farmers. It’s such a waste of taxpayer’s money. It’s supported by big ag because it gives them an unfair advantage. And they have lots of dollars to try and get their way. There is absolutely no advantage that I can see to consumers by requiring NAIS for small farms. And the big disadvantage as Judith mentions is that NAIS will force many small farmers out of business, which is exactly what big ag wants. I agree with Judith that our best quality food comes from small farms, so we need ways to support small farms and not drive them out of business.

    Bryan – oz4caster’s last blog post..Flu Factories

  8. Thanks for the great article! I am concerned because organic products is for the most part, only produced in small farms. Big business is feeling threatened by the organic farmers because it is increasing in demand. It is more costly to produce organic products, this is why big business has moved away from it. It is more cost effective to use antibiotics and steroids than it is to raise farm animals the “old fashioned” way, not to mention the “living condition” difference between the two farming methods.

    Heather’s last blog post..Apple Cider Vinegar Cure Remedies

  9. bud dingler says:

    even if this becomes law, one my guess is smaller operations will be exempt. two most small operations will ignore this requirement. like there is no way this can be enforced.

    as a small farmer i get usda mail and the Ag census supposedly required by law. anyhow most small farmers I know toss it into the recycling bin.

  10. Hi there I likee your post — will keep it bookmarked for future posts.

  11. You you should change the webpage name title Judith McGeary on The Problem with NAIS | Hartke Is Online! to more generic for your subject you write. I liked the blog post however.


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