By Steven Gorelick
One of the ways that large, global corporations are given an unfair advantage over smaller, more local competitors is through health, safety and environmental regulations. In many cases those regulations are in place because of Big Business abuses, but end up harming small businesses that are forced to comply with the same rules.
A case in point is the National Animal Identification System (NAIS) currently being phased in by the US Department of Agriculture. The regulation will require every owner of even one chicken, cow, sheep, horse, pig, goat or any other form of livestock to register their premises with the government, and eventually to track the movement of each of their animals, from birth to death. The claimed purpose of the rule is to protect the food supply and public health from the threat of diseases like avian flu: with the system in place, health officials would be able to quickly identify and – if necessary – eradicate any infected animals following an outbreak. As reasonable as this may seem at first glance, a look beneath the surface tells a different story.
First, it’s important to realize that avian flu is a product of the industrial food system. Although mild forms of bird flu have been present among wild birds, small-scale poultry farms and live markets for centuries, new, highly-pathogenic strains of bird flu have appeared in the last ten years or so. Those strains likely evolved in factory farms, where hundreds of thousands of closely confined, genetically identical birds provide an ideal medium for rapid spread and mutation of the virus. What’s more, the escalating global trade in chicks and commercial poultry feed has enabled the disease to spread beyond the confines of those industrial operations. Industrial poultry feeds, for example, often contain “poultry litter” – a polite term for whatever is found on the floor of factory farms, including bird feces.
The reason NAIS is being proposed has little to do with protecting public health and everything to do with protecting overseas markets for American food exports. Big producers can’t afford to have markets closed because of an outbreak of livestock disease, and governments will take drastic steps to avoid that possibility. In Britain, for example, 7 million sheep and cows were slaughtered to halt an outbreak of hoof and mouth disease – a non-fatal illness from which animals routinely recover – simply because other nations closed their markets to British meat and live animals until the outbreak was over. Those most affected by the slaughter were small farmers, whose entire herds – and ultimately their livelihoods – were wiped out.
NAIS will not prevent disease outbreaks, but it will instill confidence in America’s food system among overseas buyers. This may be good news for the big agribusinesses involved in global trade, but the regulation is nothing but bad news for smallholders. In order to eliminate contact with wild birds – supposed carriers of the avian flu virus – many countries have already required that poultry be kept under cover. For free-range egg producers, pastured chicken operations and owners of backyard flocks, this means the end of the line. Even worse, several Asian countries have already implemented the wholesale slaughter of poultry flocks, eliminating an important, locally-produced food from the diet of millions of villagers.
People in the agribusiness world know very well that avian flu can be used to tighten their grip on the world’s food supply. Margaret Say of the USA Poultry and Egg Export Council puts it this way: “We cannot control migratory birds but we can surely work hard to close down as many backyard farms as possible”. And Thailand-based transnational CP Foods, which runs factory poultry operations all over Southeast Asia, calls the avian flu outbreaks “an opportunity of development”.
If our governments really want to protect us from the threat of avian flu, they should immediately ban factory-style poultry operations. They should also take active steps to promote stronger local food systems, thereby minimizing the need for cross-border shipments of animals and feed.
In local food systems, people already know where their food is coming from and how it has been raised, making a nationwide animal identification and tracking system unnecessary. At our kitchen table the other day, for example, my son Ezra looked at the hamburger he was eating and asked, “is this Brimstone or Sammy?” Brimstone was a grass-fed Devon bull raised by a farmer who lives just down the road. Sammy was an organically-raised bull calf from our neighbor’s family cow. “Brimstone,” I answered. Now that’s a form of animal ID that makes sense.