Many parents were appalled when we saw on our television screens a video of workers abusing a downer cow with electric shocks because the cow was too sick to stand up. We were even more horrified to learn that meat from that cow had gone into lunches served by the federal School Lunch Program.
The scandal at the Hallmark/Westland plant in Chino, Calif., has sparked interest in the trend of securing local meat from sources that are grass-fed, organic and come from animals raised humanely. Our kids deserve the safest meat in their food. Sadly, Congress is now considering squashing such efforts to get local foods into the School Lunch Program.
In June, the House Appropriations Agriculture Subcommittee, at the behest of Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., said it was considering a provision that would force schools to buy meat for the School Lunch Program from sources enrolled in the federal government's National Animal Identification System. NAIS is hugely controversial among family farmers like me. The U.S. government wants us to inventory, identify and track the movement of all agriculture-related animals. Step one is a premise registration where a federal ID number is assigned to a farm. The second step involves tagging each animal with radio frequency identification (RFID) tags. And finally, farmers must report to the government any planned movement of animals.
These onerous and far-reaching conditions have spawned a revolt among many of us seeking to provide high-quality, safe food for consumers and our communities. Most animal disease occurs in factory farm operations, where thousands of animals are confined in filthy conditions. Yet perversely, factory farms are allowed to have one group ID number, while my 60 cow grass-based dairy would need individual RFID tags that cost $3 each in Wisconsin, even with government subsidies. Then I would be forced to purchase a $1,000 electric wand in order to read the tags and report animal movements to the government.
Animals from horses to alpacas to llamas are covered under NAIS and no one is exempt. Little wonder that so many farmers across the United States have expressed their anger at this Big Brother program that threatens to put us all out of business.
Here in Wisconsin, considered a "model" state for the NAIS program, premise ID has been made mandatory. I received a letter in February 2007 stating that if I did not comply with the Wisconsin law, I would lose my milk producer license. However, I have not signed up.
Folks showing alpacas at breeding shows have been required to chip their animals for $35 apiece.
Instead of cracking down on the industrial livestock operations that are the source of most animal diseases or dealing with the surge in foreign animal imports from countries with foot and mouth disease outbreaks thanks to our free trade agreements, Congress is instead thwarting efforts to provide local, sustainable sources of food to schools.
Tying NAIS to the School Lunch Program would prevent family farmers from accessing this important market. In the wake of the Hallmark/Westland recall, many school districts began seeking local sources of meat and attempting to get more organic and grass-fed beef into schools. Those farm-fresh options would be limited if Congress chooses to link the program to NAIS.
Wisconsin family farmers have further reasons to be suspicious about the use of NAIS to contain animal disease. Currently, the premise ID database in Wisconsin is run by a private nonprofit called the Wisconsin Livestock Identification Consortium. A look at the board of the WLIC shows it to be a who's who of corporate agribusiness interests, including Cargill, the Wisconsin Pork Association, and the Wisconsin Cattlemen's Association. None of these groups has ever shown much interest in food safety or more regulation over our meat processing plants. The WLIC membership shows no less than four radio ID tag companies.
Is NAIS really about consumer safety or fattening the profits of corporate agribusiness and electronic tag companies? The more our state and local governments try to coerce me into joining, the more I can't help but be suspicious. Consumers desiring food from local food sources instead of factory farms should be equally troubled.
Jeff Pausma is a grass-based dairy farmer in Fox Lake and a member of Family Farm Defenders.
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