I spent some time over the last couple of days watching a DVD of a hearing put on in early January by commissioners of the Michigan Department of Agriculture (MDA) seeking public comment about the National Animal Identification System (NAIS). Michigan is due to become the first state in the country to make NAIS mandatory, beginning March 1 with cattle.

It’s interesting to observe the dynamics of this kind of meeting, especially in light of all the discussion in recent postings about the arbitrariness of the federal Food and Drug Administration (FDA) via its warning letters.

In retrospect the most meaningful part of the Michigan event was what didn’t happen.

The hearing was divided into two parts. First, MDA officials justified the state’s decision to make NAIS mandatory. One of them said, “The citizens of Michigan demand that we take all action to ensure food safety.” The old “protection” issue.

These officials attempted to reassure the dozens of attendees who filled the meeting room and spilled out into the hallway that the NAIS data will be “stored in state owned servers behind firewalls” and that the radio frequency identificatio (RFID) tags contain “simply a number” and “do not contain a battery.”

Then, the meeting was open to about a dozen farmers and representatives of various agriculture groups to comment on the MDA’s decision. They were allowed up to three minutes each to make their comments, and they could leave a text with details of their positions as well.

One speaker, a registered cattle breeder, pointed out that because Michigan is the only state requiring NAIS, “Michigan’s tags become useless outside of Michigan.” Others argued that justifying the NAIS program as a means to attack bovine tuberculosis makes no sense, since existing anti-bovine-TB programs have been successful in nearly eradicating the disease. Still others complained about the required program on religious grounds and as a violation of privacy. One woman, a 4-H leader, said she was given two premises identification numbers, even though she has no cattle. “I’m now fighting for my rights to raise a few 4-H animals.”

Everyone who testified against NAIS received hearty applause from the crowd.

What didn’t happen during about an hour of such testimony was any questioning by the five MDA commissioners in attendance of those who testified. They posed not a single question. It almost looked as if the MDA was going through the motions of inviting public comment, without really listening to it. There is no indication anything positive resulted from the January session or a subsequent one earlier in February. According to the MDA’s web site, NAIS is on schedule to take effect March 1.

The event got me thinking further about my previous posting comparing the evolving regulatory approach in the U.S. to the old Soviet Union or China. I realize that in this country we are actually much more clever about our regulatory processes than those countries. Our regulatory agencies mostly target small but important business, medical, or agricultural segments. Thus, the FDA goes after a few raw milk producers, or makers of nutritional supplements or other food products. The USDA and MDA go after small farms. And since the vast majority of people aren’t aware of or don’t see any direct impact on their lives, it all happens quietly, with little notice.

It’s when the abuse is so egregious that it stirs the passions of a significant number of customers or neighbors of the abused party that we see protests to the agencies. Because the agencies don’t want elected officials to become upset, and start asking questions about budgets and leadership, the regulators may reverse course, or just not enforce their edicts. Apparently the noise hasn’t been quite loud enough in the case of NAIS in Michigan.