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Farmers Fear Livestock ID Mandate

Tracking animals with RFID could prove pricey, they say

By Marc L. Songini
January 15, 2007 12:00 PM ET

Computerworld - Independent livestock ranchers last week were quick to criticize signals that the new Congress may soon mandate implementation of the RFID-based National Animal Identification System.

Signing on to the NAIS program has been voluntary since it was first proposed in 2003, but Rep. Collin Peterson (D-Minn.), the new chairman of the House Agriculture Committee, said last week that he may soon push for the program to become mandatory.

Tagging livestock is costly and challenging, according to farmers.
Tagging livestock is costly and challenging, according to farmers.
“The voluntary approach is a good steppingstone in the process of achieving a functioning animal ID system,” Peterson said. “But full participation may ultimately be necessary in order to ensure that we have a system that meets the needs of livestock producers and the public.”

The farmers and ranchers, and the industry groups that represent them, contend that a mandatory NAIS program would impose unnecessary costs and technical challenges on their businesses.

NAIS calls for using technology to tag and track cattle and other livestock from birth to the slaughterhouse. No technology has yet been chosen for the effort, though analysts expect that most farmers would use radio frequency identification tags.

The program aims to track animals through the supply chain to help health officials find the source of meat-borne diseases such as bovine spongiform encephalopathy, also known as mad cow disease.

Officials at the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which oversees the program, last week insisted that participation in NAIS will remain voluntary and that the agency won’t limit participants to using a specific technology.

But Peterson argued that the effort has yet to see much success and needs a boost.

“USDA’s success in implementing the NAIS to date has been limited at best,” Peterson said. “Nearly $100 million has been spent to establish the system, and yet we still do not have a functioning system. Many other countries, including Canada and Australia, established functioning programs at a lower cost than we have already spent.”

Frank Albani, president of the Northeast Organic Farming Association of Massachusetts, an organization based in Barre, Mass., that counts 900 small farmers among its members, argued that NAIS will benefit only RFID gear vendors and large meat producers and retailers while hurting small farmers. “They have [tracking] systems in place in Ireland and Australia, and they cost an exorbitant amount of money,” Albani said.

Large agribusinesses have already installed systems to track animals or meat that is shipped cross-country or internationally, he noted. On the other hand, smaller farmers generally sell their wares locally, so such a program isn’t needed for them, Albani said.

‘Points of Failure’

Karin Bergener, founder of the Hollow Rock, Tenn.-based Liberty Ark Coalition, said that the exact cost of using RFID chips on animals remains undetermined. However, she said that her group, which was established to fight NAIS, has estimated that costs in countries such as the U.K. and Australia can run as high as $69 per head of cattle, a total that could erase the profit margin for some species.

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