With many of its members adamantly opposed to a mandatory national animal identification system but with global markets for U.S. beef increasingly insistent on animal traceback, the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association walks a tightrope between membership demands and economic reality.

"Our response to the producers who don’t want a mandatory system has been that we encourage our members to participate in a voluntary system," Bethany Shively, NCBA spokesperson, told MEATPOULTRY.com. "But the process is ongoing."

The chief complaint against a mandatory system, she said, is that private information – the number of cattle on a specific ranch in a specific feedlot, for example – might become public. "USDA has led us to believe that the data collected under a mandatory NAIS would be subject to Freedom of Information Act requests, but this is confidential business information. There’s some worry among our members about what might happen if activists got a hold of that information."

In order for NAIS to be exempt from FOIA requests, "Congress would have to pass specific legislation to do that," Shively said, adding that doing so would be a very tough political battle.

In an article published June 27 in the New York Times, several cattlemen complained that NAIS is little more than an invasion of privacy by the federal government. "This plan is expensive, it’s intrusive, and there’s no need for it," one cattlemen ranching in New Mexico, Jay Platt, is quoted as saying. Another farmer, Genell Pridgen, who raises sheep, cattle, hogs, turkeys and chickens on a farm in North Carolina, said: "My main beef is that these proposed rules were developed by people sitting in their offices with no real knowledge of animal husbandry and small farms." She added: "I feel these regulations are draconian, and that lobbyists from corporate mega-agribusiness designed this program to destroy traditional small sustainable agriculture." Supporting NAIS from USDA, Neil Hammerschmidt, director of NAIS, said the identification program is key to creating an effective traceback program, which would benefit livestock health. "Now, when there’s an outbreak, we can’t trace prior movements quickly, and we end up testing a lot more animals than necessary. We want to put in place the infrastructure prior an outbreak," he told the Times.

Meat packers, who have seen some export markets shrink or even disappear for lack of a mandatory U.S. national animal identification program generally support USDA’s plan. Some cattlemen, however, say the costs of NAIS would outweigh any benefits gained in the global market. Some estimates put the cost of identifying every animal with an electronic tag at $2 or more per head.

Shively told MEATPOULTRY.com that NCBA has been encouraged by meetings with USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack, who held six "listening sessions" in April and May on the controversial identification plan, with plans to hold six more sessions later this year. "He seemed very interested in what our members had to say about costs and privacy," she said. "We think he’s taking our concerns very seriously and we’re encouraged by that."