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Federal plan aims to track all livestock by 2009
New system intends to stop disease

Kristin Collins / The (Raleigh) News & Observer | April 10 2006

RALEIGH - Once in a while, Leslie Averill grabs a goat from the back yard and puts it in her Chevy Silverado for a spin. They visit her chiropractor’s office, maybe stop by the outlets – just to socialize a little and see the looks on people’s faces. Pretty soon, Averill might have to report every goat jaunt to the federal government.

A new national system, designed to prevent the spread of diseases such as avian flu and mad cow disease, aims to track every livestock animal in the nation – be it a cow on a feed lot, a farm-raised trout or a baby goat in Averill’s back yard.

Farms will be registered, animals will be tagged with numbers, and their movements will be reported to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The information will be stored in a national database.

It will affect an estimated 50,000 animal owners in North Carolina. Even children who raise animals for 4-H programs might have to comply.

"Even if it’s Aunt Bessie’s pet cow, that cow is susceptible to foot and mouth disease," said Mary Ann McBride, a state Department of Agriculture veterinarian implementing the system in North Carolina.

The program is voluntary for now. Agriculture officials are asking animal owners only to register their property. But the government plans to make the full program mandatory by early 2009.

The idea has many animal owners feeling besieged.

Internet chat groups for animal owners are ablaze. Grass-roots opposition groups are forming, and rumors are flying.

Horse enthusiasts worry that they will have to put ear tags on show horses, or tell the government each time they take a trail ride. One Person County farmer said a neighbor feared that he would have to tag the worms he uses for composting.

Much of the fear arises from uncertainty. Federal agriculture officials are still working out details of the program: how the animals will be tagged, what it will cost, how animal movements will be reported. They are throwing around all sorts of high-tech tracking ideas: ear tags that emit radio frequencies, microchips – even retinal scanning.

"People have jumped on the national security bandwagon without really thinking it through," said Averill, who breeds and sells goats on her 36-acre farm in Johnston County. "The small breeder is going to be forced into something that’s so cost-prohibitive that they won’t be able to own their animals anymore."

Federal agriculture officials created the National Animal Identification System in 2004, after the United States confirmed its first case of mad cow disease in a Holstein in Washington state. Mad cow, or bovine spongiform encephalopathy, is a brain-wasting disease whose human-variant is fatal and has forced the slaughter of millions of cows in Britain.

Officials couldn’t track all the places where the Washington cow had lived, or all the other cows that came in contact with it.

The new system would let the government trace an animal’s history within 48 hours. If it works, agriculture officials will be able to look up an animal’s ID number and know every place it has ever lived.

Some in the meat industry say there are plenty of reasons to track animals more closely.

Bundy Plyler, director of the N.C. Cattlemen’s Association, said many countries that buy U.S. beef want more detailed information about it. Being able to lay out the life history of a steak could be a major selling point. "There are consumers that say they want to know more about where their food comes from," Plyler said.

The logistics of tagging and documenting animal movements are one thing for large farms with bookkeepers and accountants. They’re another for small farmers trying to make a living selling eggs or goat’s milk soap.

Steve Moize keeps about 3,000 chickens and turkeys on his Person County farm. It’s a tiny operation compared with most chicken farms in the state, where farmers raise hundreds of thousands of birds in long metal houses.

The standards for tagging chickens and turkeys aren’t set, but under current proposals, Moize would have to tag more chickens than larger farms. The USDA has said it probably will let large flocks be tagged with one number because the birds stay together and never go outside.

Moize’s free-range birds are raised outside, so he probably will have to identify each one.

Moize said spending a few dollars to tag each bird could put his operation in the red. "And if I had to track every animal movement every time I sold one chicken or a predator killed a chicken, that would be a lot of paperwork I don’t have time to do," he said.

McBride, the state agriculture official, said it’s too soon to panic.

The standards for tagging most animals have yet to be set. The federal government is studying each species independently, so animal owners won’t end up with unworkable rules – such as ear tags for show horses.

For now, McBride said, she is just asking animal owners to fill out a short registration form. Nearly 2,700 animal owners have signed up. She said the state won’t do anything more until the federal government insists.

"I think people are just looking for another indication that the government, that Big Brother is trying to take over," McBride said. "This is a consumer confidence issue. Right now, who knows where that hamburger at McDonald’s comes from?"

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