Animals Tracked From Birth to Deli Counter

By Alexander Harris
Capital News Service

GORDONSVILLE, Va. – Collins Huff makes the day’s final rounds surrounded by rooting Red Tamworth pigs and grazing Cotswold sheep, while more than a hundred Devon cattle settle down for the night in the rolling pastures of Gryffon’s Aerie, an independent farm specializing in raising rare breeds of livestock.

Huff, an independent farmer who started his business in 1999, has found a niche selling high-quality, grass-fed, free-range organic meats in a market dominated by multinational meat producers.

But Huff says his livelihood is threatened, not just by his competition, but by an unfunded governmental program that tags and tracks farm animals from birth to the deli counter.

“It is basically not so much a round across the bow of the natural food movement, as it is pretty much a broad side attack against the natural food movement,” Huff said.

Collins Huff, an independent meat producer, opposes a mandatory animal ID system. (Photo by Alexander Harris)

Collins Huff, an independent meat producer, opposes a mandatory animal ID system. (Photo by Alexander Harris)

Huff is referring to the National Animal Identification System, a program of the United States of Department Agriculture that is embraced by industry heavyweights as a way to ease consumer concern about food safety and make American meat products more marketable in a global economy.

“I think the freedom to farm was never included in the Bill of Rights, because I don’t think the founding fathers ever envisioned a day where we would have to ask our government for permission to grow our own food,” Huff said. “That’s what it looks like it’s coming down to.”

In Virginia, NAIS is administered by the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services. State veterinarian Dr. Richard Wilkes says the program has a variety of benefits.

“We deal with so many diseases that spread so fast,” Wilkes said. “It would be prudent, in my opinion, to take advantage of this technology to better equip us rather than wait until we’re confronted with it.”

Wilkes is a member of the Virginia Animal ID Working Group, which gives input and guidance about NAIS policy and implementation. Its members are appointed by VDACS and represent different sectors of the livestock industry.

Currently, participation in NAIS is voluntary in Virginia, but in other states, such as Wisconsin, participation is mandatory.

“The states that are doing it are definitely in the minority,” Wilkes said. “There are no plans at this time to go the mandatory route in Virginia.”

Huff worries there is nothing to prevent Virginia from changing course and adopting a mandatory program. If that day ever comes, the future of Gryffon’s Aerie will be uncertain, Huff says. The cost of equipping each animal with a radio-frequency identification tag – which costs about $30 a head – would have to be paid by consumers.

“It’s invasive on so many levels, and the main thing is the expenses,” Huff said. “We don’t have a monopoly. We can’t take our money on volume. We can only make our money on mark up and every expense chips away on that mark up.”

House Bill 1473, introduced to the General Assembly earlier this year, would have prohibited VDACS from carrying out a mandatory NAIS program. The bill was stricken by its patron, Delegate Albert C. Eisenberg, D-Arlington, before it was voted on by the House Subcommittee on Agriculture.

“What we’ve got here is a situation in which you have a number of parties who have conflicting interests, and it’s very difficult at this point to bring them together,” Eisenberg said.

Eisenberg says he introduced the bill on behalf of small independent producers, such as Huff, whose operations pale in comparison to the large factory farms operated by companies, such as meat giants Smithfield or Cargill.

Many large companies raise their livestock not in open pastures, but in the indoor facilities known as confined animal-feeding operations. Under NAIS regulations in some states, animals raised in confinement operations are exempted from individual tagging, grouped into lots and tracked through the market as a unit.

Huff says this exemption favors the corporate producers and places an unfair burden on independent producers who might have to tag each free-range head of livestock. The NAIS not only will be ineffective at preventing outbreaks of animal diseases, Huff says, but in some states, it also enables large-scale confinement operations to continue practices that make livestock more vulnerable to illness.

“You take away the sunshine and the fresh air, and you put that many animals of identical genetics into the same room. Whatever one gets, they all get,” Huff said. “They fully expect those animals to be sick under those circumstances.”

According to the NAIS Web site, attempting to record all animals’ movements is not practical, nor is it NAIS’ intent.

“The only animals recommended for identification are those that are moved from their premises to locations where they ‘commingle,’ or come into contact with, animals from (other) premises,” the Web site states.

Animals that mingle with animals from other farms pose a higher risk of transmitting diseases, the Web site states.

In commercial agriculture operations, it is common practice to breed animals to favor certain characteristics, such as milking ability or size, to get the most production value for each head of cattle. Selective breeding can be at the expense of other traits, such as maternal instinct or resilience against disease.

Because of the varied genetics of his livestock and the cattle’s natural environment, Huff’s animals are healthier than those raised in factory farms, Huff says.

“I think we’re looking at a day and age where they want to bring all these animals into their cash flow by mandating vaccines and various medications that a responsibly raised animal in free-range conditions just doesn’t have a need for,” Huff said.

In addition to agricultural groups supportive of industrial meat production, NAIS also is supported by pharmaceutical companies, which manufacture vaccines and antibiotics for livestock, and technology companies, which manufacture chips and readers.

Delegate Robert D. Orrock, R-Thornburg, who is chairman of the agriculture subcommittee that was slated to review the bill against mandating NAIS, says he opposed the bill because the current system still is voluntary. But, Orrock says, he understands the concerns of small farmers.

“If there is ever a bill to come forward to mandate this, these folks would have something to be afraid of. That is something I would not support,” Orrock said.

Initially, the USDA intended for NAIS to be enforced nationwide, but because of farmers’ opposition, the agency let individual states decide whether compliance would be required.

Some states currently have a voluntary system. Some have the authority to implement NAIS at any point, while a few states, such as Michigan and Wisconsin, mandate participation. A handful of states have introduced legislation aiming to limit the scope of NAIS.

“People look at it from different perspectives, and it’s not gelling,” Eisenberg said.

As long as NAIS remains a voluntary program in Virginia, Collins Huff will continue his operation at Gryffon’s Aerie with minimal government control and corporate interference. But faced with the possibility that Virginia might one day adopt a mandatory registration program, Huff remains on the defensive.

“If consumers that want a choice don’t join their voices with us, then in essence we have no voice,” Huff said.



Al wrote this story for VCU’s Capital News Service. It was published by such news outlets as RVA Magazine and The Alexandria Times.

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