February 5, 2010
U.S.D.A. Plans to Drop Program to Trace Livestock
By WILLIAM NEUMAN
Faced with stiff resistance from ranchers and farmers, the Obama administration has decided to scrap a national program intended to help authorities quickly identify and track livestock in the event of an animal disease outbreak.
In abandoning the program, called the National Animal Identification System, officials said they would start over in trying to devise a livestock tracing program that could win widespread support from the industry.
The agriculture secretary, Tom Vilsack, will announce the changes on Friday, according to officials at the Agriculture Department, who spoke on condition of anonymity because the decision had not yet been made public.
The officials said that it would be left to the states to devise many aspects of a new system, including requirements for identifying livestock.
New federal rules will be developed but the officials said they would apply only to animals being moved in interstate commerce, such as cattle raised in one state being transported to a slaughterhouse in another state.
It could take two years or more to create new federal rules, the officials said, and it was not clear how far the government would go to restrict the movement of livestock between states if the animals did not meet basic traceability standards.
The system was created by the Bush administration in 2004 after the discovery in late 2003 of a cow infected with mad cow disease.
Participation of ranchers and farmers in the identification system was voluntary, but the goal was to give every animal, or in the case of pigs and poultry, groups of animals, a unique identification number that would be entered in a database. The movements of animals would be tracked, and if there was a disease outbreak or a sick animal was found, officials could quickly locate other animals that had been exposed.
But the system quickly drew the ire of many farmers and ranchers, particularly cattle producers. Some objected to the cost of identification equipment and the extra work in having to report their animals’ movements. Others said they believed the voluntary system would become mandatory, that it was intrusive and that the federal government would use it to pry into their lives and finances.
The old system received $142 million in federal financing, but gained the participation of only 40 percent of the nation’s livestock producers, according to a report by the Congressional Research Service.
When Mr. Vilsack took over the Agriculture Department last year, he began a series of public meetings on the identification program and was bombarded by strident opposition.
Agriculture officials said that most details of a new system would be worked out in the coming months through consultation with the livestock industry and the states.
“It was just overwhelming in the country that people didn’t like it, and I think they took that feedback to heart,” said Mary Kay Thatcher, public policy director of the American Farm Bureau Federation, which had opposed the identification system. “I think it’s good they’ve at least said we’re going to do something different.”
Carol Tucker Foreman, a food safety expert of the Consumer Federation of America, agreed that the old system was not working and needed to be changed.
But she worried that a new system that could have different rules in every state might not be effective.
“It’s very, very hard to have an effective state-by-state program,” she said.