Nebraska legislators bring two bills on EID tags
LINCOLN, Neb. — Nebraska state senators introduced more than 600 measures during the first 10 days of 2022’s short, 60-day legislative session. Two bills related to the Nebraska Brand Committee — both concerning aspects of electronic individual animal identification — have been referred to the Unicameral’s agriculture committee. A hearing date for the bills was still pending at press time.
LB 572, passed during the 2021 legislative session, granted the brand committee the ability to adopt approved “nonvisual identifiers” (such as electronic identification/EID tags) for the purposes of verifying livestock ownership. The Brand committee also was granted the authority to provide “electronic inspection” of livestock using approved nonvisual identifiers.
By November 2021, The Brand Committee had assembled a group of producers already using electronic identification (EID) technology to advise it on how to carry out its program.
However, questions about transparency quickly mounted among panhandle cow/calf producers, legislators and some brand committee board members after the press was excluded from the initial advisory meeting on Nov. 2, 2021. Citing concerns over “proprietary information” and “dampened participation,” the Nebraska Brand Committee voted 3-2 during a special telephone meeting on Nov. 16, 2021, to keep future advisory group meetings closed to the press and public.
During a December 9, 2021 hearing by the agriculture committee, Sen. Steve Halloran of Hastings, urged the brand committee to reconsider its decision to keep the meetings closed, stressing that transparency was key to the public’s trust in government. Halloran also warned the brand committee if it continued, a senator might introduce a bill to either compel the committee to open the meetings or to outright revoke the committee’s rule-making authority regarding electronic inspection.
Brand committee board member Duane Gangwish attempted to assuage concerns raised by Sen. Tom Brewer of Gordon, who said his office had received phone calls from ranchers who were afraid that the brand committee was adopting EID in an attempt to do away with the hot iron brand.
Gangwish said the committee had no intention or authority to do away with the hot iron brand, that EID and e-inspection would be voluntary, and that the initial rollout for e-inspection was intended for non-change of ownership inspections until the methods and technology were perfected.
In the same line of questioning, Gangwish affirmed that the committee had the legal authority under the open meetings act to keep the advisory group meetings closed to the public for the foreseeable future in order to protect “privileged business information.” However, within a week of the ag committee hearing, the brand committee had reversed its decision and opened it’s Dec. 17 online meeting to the public. The next meeting of the advisory group will be held on January 28, 2022, at 10 a.m. Central, at the Nebraska Beef Council Office, 1319 Central Ave in Kearney, Nebraska. It will also be open to the public — with conditions.
“Because of its continuing desire to keep the industry and policy makers informed as to the issues being studied by the E-Inspection Subcommittee, the Nebraska Brand Committee has voluntarily chosen to make this meeting of the E-Inspection Subcommittee open to the public to listen to and observe the discussions,” the brand committee said in a statement attached to the bottom of the meeting notice. “No public comment nor participation from individuals not designated as members of the E-Inspection Subcommittee will be permitted and the E-Inspection Subcommittee reserves the right to go into closed session to protect the public interest at any time.”
“Public comment and participation will continue to be permitted as set forth on the agendas for official meetings of the Nebraska Brand Committee.”
Mistrust continues to linger in both the countryside and the legislature regarding the brand committee’s initial lack of transparency, as well as concerns about some of the methods and mechanisms being explored for carrying out electronic inspection.
Those woes led Sen. Steve Erdman of Bayard, to introduce LB 744. If passed, LB 744 would roll back provisions passed last year which granted the brand committee authority for electronic inspection and adoption of individual animal ID. It essentially sends the message to the brand committee that it needs to focus on the basic mission: brand inspection and recording.
Erdman is not a cattle rancher himself, however, the 47th Legislative District contains a large swath of the Panhandle and is a majority cow/calf district. In the last year, Erdman’s district has experienced a significant turnover rate in brand inspectors resigning and leaving the agency, a trend which has been cause for concern. Similarly, District 43, represented by Brewer, contains a large swath of the Nebraska Sandhills that are prime cattle raising country, and has also experienced turmoil among its brand inspector ranks.
Objections to LB 744 have been voiced by progressive ranchers and beef producers, who see the bill as a step backwards that may hinder the market opportunities of ranchers already using EID technology. Nebraska Cattlemen and Farm Bureau are also expected to voice opposition to the bill, as both organizations have adopted member policies that are friendly to electronic identification and alternatives to physical brand inspection.
Support for LB 744 has been voiced by populist western Nebraska cow/calf ranchers who feel the brand committee should focus on the support and welfare of its rank-and-file brand inspectors. R-CALF USA members, as well as members of the Independent Cattlemen of Nebraska (ICON), are likely to support LB 744 because they are wary of the potential for EID and blockchain technology to facilitate and accelerate vertical integration in the cattle industry.
While not related to the EID or the Nebraska Brand Act per se, LB 743, also introduced by Erdman, would change requirements under the Nebraska Open Meetings Act and prevent subcommittees established by a parent agency (such as the brand committee) from entering executive session unless under specific circumstances, (such as to discuss pending or imminent litigation).
LB 1095, introduced by Sen. Halloran, restores voluntary EID language that was deleted under the Animal Disease Traceability Act, LB 344, which passed the legislature in 2020. LB 1095 was inspired by a similar bill passed by the Wyoming legislature in 2021, which allowed ranchers to choose how they want to identify their cattle when shipping interstate, effectively making EID voluntary.
Cattle industry insiders and lobbyists have bemoaned LB 744 in recent weeks and repeated that EID is “voluntary.” While the brand committee has stressed that it has no intention of making EID mandatory, the Nebraska Department of Agriculture has signaled different intentions.
There are currently no provisions in Nebraska statutes that state EID is voluntary for animal disease traceability purposes. When passed, LB 344 required Nebraska to mirror the national animal ID requirements to move animals across state lines, which means that if the USDA’s Animal Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) implements mandatory EID for disease traceability, then Nebraska will have to follow suit.
LB 1095, which was brought to Halloran’s desk by ICON, restores rancher’s freedom of choice for the method they determine an individual animal’s identity for disease traceability.
On the national level, R-CALF backed a 2019 federal lawsuit in Wyoming that challenged the APHIS proposal to mandate the use of EID tags in animals moving across state lines. R-CALF argued that federal EID mandates are costly requirements for producers who do not use the technology. It further alleged that the USDA failed to follow a notice and comment period. R-CALF further alleged that USDA violated the Federal Advisory Committee Act, and that it hand-selected a group of members advocating for EID, such as industry officials and ear tag manufacturers. Federal Law requires balanced representation on USDA advisory committees.
The USDA withdrew its EID mandate in 2021 and the lawsuit was dismissed by the Wyoming Federal District Court.
An amendment to LB 572 now requires gubernatorial appointments to the brand committee’s board of directors to appear before the legislature’s agriculture for a confirmation hearing. Since the brand committee’s budget contains roughly $6 million in producer collected fees, the legislature determined that it needed to have oversight over those appointments.
While board member Duane Gangwish of Lexington was appointed to the board prior to the confirmation hearing provision taking effect, Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts’ reappointment of Terry Cone of Burwell to serve another term on the board is now subject to confirmation by the legislature’s ag committee before he is eligible.
The confirmation hearing for Cone is expected to occur on the day prior to the hearings for LB 744 and 1095.
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