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Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Farmers Fear Livestock ID Mandate

Farmers Fear Livestock ID Mandate
Tracking animals with RFID could prove pricey, they say
Marc L. Songini

January 15, 2007 (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

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.

“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

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.

She also noted that “the points of failure involved with such a database
are almost impossible to count.” Bergener also raised privacy concerns,
contending that the technology could also be used to track animal owners.

Pushback from producers prompted the USDA in November not to switch from
a voluntary program to a mandatory one, an agency spokesman said. At the
time, the USDA also shifted technical and implementation responsibility
to state governments. “We believe the best program respects states’
rights,” he said. “It’s up to the states [to determine] if they want
make it mandatory.”

So far, only Michigan has moved to require mandatory compliance with the
rules. All cattle in that state must have RFID tags by March 2007.

The USDA spokesman noted that the department has spent about $84 million
thus far to implement NAIS.

Meanwhile, Peterson is calling on his colleagues in Congress to seek
ways of making NAIS implementation cheap, efficient, secure and
mandatory. No timeline has been set to discuss his proposal.

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