Bar-Coded Meat

Just when you thought free-range pork couldn’t possibly get more expensive, the government is pushing to tag all U.S. livestock with scannable IDs—a program that could hit small farmers with whopping costs and drive many of them out of business. A recent AlterNet article explains that initially, the USDA set out to make its National Animal Identification System (NAIS) mandatory, announcing last year that it would require all farmers and ranchers to place a bar code on every cow, chicken, pig, turkey, goat, sheep, and horse they owned by 2009. Opposition from small farmers persuaded the federal agency to make the program voluntary, but now many states are deciding to require the ID tags, and sustainable-food advocates are worried.

The ostensible purpose of NAIS is to control animal disease outbreaks and protect consumers by quickly identifying infected livestock. The National Beef Cattlemen’s Association and the National Pork Producers Council are big proponents, arguing that an ID database is the only way they can reassure profitable international buyers that the U.S. meat supply is safe—i.e., not contaminated with mad cow disease or E. coli. As the U.S. Secretary of Agriculture ever-so-subtly put it, “You don’t ever want to put this massive economic system at risk.”

But small and organic ranchers say that NAIS will hit them hardest and won’t actually do anything to prevent animal disease. The ID system is about controlling disease outbreaks that have already happened, instead of cleaning up farming practices in the first place, farmers say. And while large producers can afford to buy the ID tags (three bucks a pop) and have the staff to handle tracking, for smaller farmers it just won’t be practical. “It will be like doing your taxes every week,” one farmer worries.

If you live in Michigan, Wisconsin, Indiana, or Texas, where some of the NAIS requirements are soon to be implemented, now might be the time to stock up on steaks from your favorite local farm. Could be a great opportunity to create that meat-aging room you’ve always wanted …

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