The ID/INFO Expo occurred on the cusp. The two-and-a-half day event, a long-standing convention of people and organizations promoting animal identification, let’s pronounce that “En – A – Eye – Ess,” brought several hundred people to Kansas City this week. They met at an odd time in the politics of animal ID. Tom Vilsack and friends at the USDA seem to be mounting an all out push for the program at the same time that the House and Senate are slashing his funding with the kind of enthusiasm not seen since Tobe Hooper directed Chainsaw Massacre way back in 1974.

Yet Dr. David Acheson, ex-Assistant Commissioner for Food Protection at the US Food and Drug Administration and now the managing director of food and import safety at Leavitt Partners in Utah, told the crowd, “The Obama Administration wants to make capital out of protecting the food supply.”

His comments, probably emboldened by Barack’s recently empanelled food safety commission and Michelle’s back yard organic garden, suggested Obama will try to significantly boost food-safety enforcement efforts and force improved food traceability as a tool to achieve his goal. Acheson saw NAIS as a vital part of the plan.

Vilsack’s cross-country listening tour early this summer witnessed some serious road blocks toward instituting any sort of animal ID program as part of a food safety initiative. Comments, often vehement, ran solidly against NAIS.

Minnesota Department of Ag commissioner, Gene Hugoson, who has managed one of the more successful statewide animal ID programs, acknowledged a major problem in spreading the program nationwide was a failure to communicate. “We haven’t been clear about why we need it,” he said. Several folks on the firing line at the USDA have privately told me they agree with his statement.

Parroting the ‘Locate in 48’ mantra, he said, “If a problem occurs, it will allow authorities to isolate the problem and keep other, uninfected herds from being sacrificed.”

Most speakers very carefully avoided the issue of making NAIS mandatory, a white-hot issue for many small ranchers and trade association like R-CALF. One speaker, though, treaded on what can only be called very thin political ice when he commented about free riders.

Free riders, of course, would be those people who refuse to accept NAIS but can be demonstrated to benefit from the program. He suggested that federal subsidies could be withheld from them, a carrot and two-by-four federal option to encourage participation.

A Wednesday afternoon session was an amazing thing to witness after attending the contentious NAIS listening sessions in Jefferson City and Omaha. A producer panel spoke on ‘Animal Identification Opportunities,’ not the best title for a session that included Doreen Hannes, one of the most adamant opponents to NAIS. She, of course, saw no opportunity, especially for the small farmer.

Speaking on behalf of animal identification were Roger Koberstein, a Colorado beef producer; Eric Brandt of Brandt Beef in Brawley, CA; Josie Riser of JoBo Holsteins in Pennsylvania and Mark Harmon of Joplin Regional Stockyards in Missouri.

Points made? The quick location of cattle lost in the violent snow storms that raked Eastern Colorado. Without premise ID and tagging, Koberstein said most of the cattle would not have been located in time to airdrop hay and they would have starved to death.

Brandt talked about tracing his high quality meat from calves born in central California all the way to some of the top steak house in New York and Boston. Brandt sells an extremely high quality product that he continues to refine. A data geek of the first order, he wants to be able to look at the numbers, rearranging them constantly to identify trends and capitalize on a mountain of proprietary information his company has collected over the years.

Harmon, of course, runs one of the biggest Stockyards in the country, arranging for the sale of thousands of animals in a day. Without the ability to scan that many animals, the work load needed to process the paper work would be insurmountable. “It’s the future,” he seemed to be saying to the audience. “You better get with it.”

Standing alone against those four proponents, Hannes pointed out that most small farmers would never accept what they see as an unnecessary and costly intrusion into their lifestyle. She saw “No benefit to the small farmer or rancher. It’s unworkable, intrusive and undesirable.”

“We strive to engage in direct, unregulated, unencumbered trade with the consumers of our products,” she said, asking for an understanding of the needs of the little guy who wants to sell a little home-grown beef to his neighbors without being saddled by ear tags, wands and computerized equipment. “The average small rancher is older and will simply drop out if he’s forced to do this,” she said.

“We are not interested in ‘market access’ defined as ‘access to international markets,’” she said, making her point by talking directly about one of the Strongest selling points for NAIS.

With government reps and software/hardware companies patrolling the hallways of the Westin Crown Center, the most important player in this saga was Rob Cannell, director of McDonald’s beef and pork supply chain. As possibly the biggest buyer of red meat in North America, Cannell probably wields a heftier stick that even Tom Vilsack.

“We devote considerable resources to identifying and responding to what consumers want, and what they want is influenced by what they hear and read, and they are "bombarded with information" from radio, television and social media,” he said.

“Our brand is very visible, and we have to protect that brand," Cannell said. McDonald’s is well-known for going to great lengths to defend their name against any incursion, real or imagined, and they’ve never feared to make decisions that rattle their supplier base to the core. Right now, he’s protecting his supply chain by dealing only with a select group of suppliers and the requirement that they be able to do "a lot of tracking" from raw materials to finished products. “We need to know how much of what was used where," he said.

Cannell said that capability is important because “consumers want a lot -- value, variety, healthful food, good-tasting food, animal welfare, environmental sustainability. They ask a lot of questions about local, natural, organic, hormones, herbicides, pesticides, etc."

“There will always be an 'etc.' -- there will always be another concern coming, another five coming," he said as he explained why McDonald’s is so sensitive to public opinion.

And so the Oracles of Oak Brook listen carefully; some say too carefully, and react swiftly to the public’s demands. Doing business with them or any of the food businesses with their corporate hands stretched across international borders, means NAIS is as close to a done deal as it gets without an actual USDA regulation requiring it. Seems to me that their ought to be a sensible provision to the little guy who doesn’t want to play in the bigger sand box to do his own thing with direct (or indirect) retribution from federal or state authorities.

Bottom line: If the government demands something of the food supply chain, heels will be dragged and moaning and groaning will be heard throughout the land. If McDonald’s asks, it will be done.


Chuck Jolley is a free lance writer, based in Kansas City, who covers a wide range of ag industry topics for and