USDA's announcement to forever retain the National Animal Identification System (NAIS) as a voluntary program at the federal level wasn't a big surprise. And I'll take USDA at its word that, at the federal level at least, NAIS will always remain voluntary.

Still, you know as well as I do that word definitions are much more fluid in government use than in general society. Don't get me wrong, I firmly believe the folks at USDA are honorable, trustworthy folks; it's just that administrations change, and events can quickly reshape priorities.

After all, we can all recall Bill Clinton's shifty explanation about what "is" is. And there's no better historical lesson regarding the shelf life of government pronouncements than what happened to Native Americans when a young nation decided to reach across the continent for its Manifest Destiny.

More surprising to me about the USDA pronouncement was R-CALF's claiming of credit for it. In a Dec. 1 news release following the USDA announcement, R-CALF president Chuck Kiker said:

"Several R-CALF leaders have worked for many months with various USDA officials to prevent implementation of a mandatory animal identification system, and USDA's recent decision shows that this organization has made progress."

What's interesting is that in February 2006, another R-CALF release had Kiker criticizing his National Cattlemen's Beef Association (NCBA) counterpart, Mike John, for declaring a voluntary national ID program was even feasible.

"To imply to cattle producers that the NAIS has any chance of being voluntary is not 'straight talk,' Kiker wrote. "The USDA had made it clear that a voluntary program would not achieve the results it desires. The voluntary checkoff program didn't work; voluntary COOL (country-of-origin labeling) hasn't worked; and voluntary animal ID won't work."

Now, that's some tap-dancing that would cock the eyebrow of Fred Astaire; a flippity flop worthy of the best freshly beached carp. It isn't, however, particularly surprising given R-CALF's history.

Folks might recall how R-CALF teamed up with anti-meat groups in a June 2004 Washington, D.C., media event aimed at retaining closure of the U.S. to trade in Canadian live cattle. At that time, the U.S. had but one case of BSE, but it was in a Washington state cow of Canadian origin.

Intended to woo U.S. legislators and consumers to its cause, the press conference -- and the national advertising that accompanied it -- invoked such phrases as "mad cow," "fatal disease" and "high-risk."

At the same time R-CALF was spreading the alarm about "dangerous" Canadian cattle, even the consumer media reported some R-CALF members were buying up cattle in Canada, where prices had tanked following closure of the U.S. border. At that time, Canada had little packing capacity of its own and was almost totally geared for export, something it has since remedied.

Later that fall, the first "domestic" case of BSE was found in the U.S. Luckily, consumers rejected R-CALF's posturing like a vending machine spitting out a tin slug, and a brilliant crisis-management plan by USDA and NCBA minimized the domestic impact.

In fact, beef consumption continued to rise, with U.S. beef producers realizing record prices and profitability in the ensuing years. R-CALF took credit for that, too.
-- Joe Roybal