Plan for Tracking Animals Meets Farmers’ Resistance
The New York Times
By Theo Emery
December 13, 2006
LANCASTER, Tenn., Dec. 8 — A federal effort to quickly pinpoint and contain outbreaks of disease among livestock is coming under attack on farms, in Internet chat rooms and at livestock markets, ranches and feed shops across the nation.
Although the effort, the National Animal Identification System, intended to trace a sick animal to the property it came from within 48 hours, is still in early, voluntary stages, the United States Department of Agriculture has had to retreat from a proposal to make it mandatory. Officials now say that further participation will result from financial incentives and market pressure.
“This is admittedly a very emotional issue with many folks,” said Bruce I. Knight, the under secretary for marketing and regulatory programs at the Agriculture Department. “It’s one that really asks for a lot of patience and resolve.”
Mr. Knight admits his agency has made mistakes in establishing the tracking system, which began to be rolled out in 2005. The rule-making process was not transparent enough, he said, which only raised the mistrust of farmers. He said he had been meeting with groups across the country to explain the program better.
Among other things, criticism has centered on the system’s cost, its potential for government invasion of privacy, perceived biblical prohibitions against its technology and the question of who would benefit.
Darrin Drake, whose family has farmed for at least 10 generations, said he did not need the government to keep track of the hundreds of cattle, goats, sheep and other livestock that roamed Peaceful Pastures, the farm here in mid-Tennessee that he and his wife bought in 1997.
“To me, this is my backyard,” said Mr. Drake, who is 40. “Now, if you started going into town and getting into people’s backyards, they’d get a little irritated. It just happens that my backyard’s a little bigger than most people’s.”
Mary-Louise Zanoni, a lawyer in upstate New York and the executive director of Farm for Life, an advocacy group for small farms, calls the effort a “scam” that will squeeze out small farmers.
“The only reason for an animal identification system,” Ms. Zanoni said, “is to serve the economic interests of large meat packers and people who are going to sell the technology that will be indispensable in the system.”
To participate, farmers register their “premises,” large or small, with the state, which passes their information on to the Agriculture Department. Registration is free. Of about 1.4 million premises nationwide, almost a quarter have been registered and assigned a seven-digit ID code, Mr. Knight said.
The next phase calls for animals to be assigned 15-digit numbers and given tags, either individually or, in the case of animals that are sold in lots, like pigs and poultry, collectively, according to the agency’s user guide for the system. Electronic tags are expected to cost $2 to $3 each, and it is likely that scanners will be used to read them, tracking the path from barnyard to slaughterhouse.
Amish farmers, who do not believe in using technology, also frown on tagging. “We would be conscientiously opposed and have religious convictions against the identification system,” one Amish farmer from Wisconsin wrote to Ms. Zanoni.
Industry groups have long sought an effective national tracking system.
The push intensified in late 2001 after an outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease in Europe and as fears of agroterrorism attacks on the United States food supply grew after Sept. 11. Additional pressure came with the first case of mad cow disease in the United States in 2003 and the ban on American meat by dozens of countries, said Robert Fourdraine, chairman of the ID committee for the National Institute for Animal Agriculture, an industry group.
Debate over whether the program would be compulsory proved so intense that the entire effort stalled. The only way to get it moving again was to put to rest fears about a mandate, Mr. Knight said.
But some animal tracking supporters argue that a voluntary system will not work. Emmit Rawls, a professor of agricultural economics at the University of Tennessee, said one diseased animal that had not been tagged and therefore could not be tracked could have enormous consequences.
But Mr. Knight said that while full participation seemed unlikely, a voluntary system would be effective.
Not all farmers oppose the program. Kenneth P. Garrett, 73, who has a herd of about 75 beef cattle in Cannon County, Tenn., said fear of change was driving the opposition. “I don’t see any problem with it,” Mr. Garrett said. “I don’t see how it could do anything but good in the long run.”
But the program has led to alarm and confusion. In Tennessee, some farmers were angered to learn they must be enrolled in the program to qualify for state grants. Others discovered that if they had participated in other disease eradication programs, they were assigned premise numbers and registration cards.
Virginia Youmans, who has sheep and other livestock on a 53-acre family farm in Lynnville, received a bar-coded premise ID card in the mail.
The program “goes against everything that we believe in about privacy and private property,” Ms. Youmans said. She said that their philosophical objections and the program’s expense would probably keep her and her husband from turning the farm into the business they had dreamed of.
"We want to stay here and we want to keep it in farming,” she said. “If we have to go through all that, then we probably won’t.”