Plan for Tracking Animals Meets Farmers’ Resistance
By THEO EMERY
Published: 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
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
“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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.”