National animal ID plan stumbles
PROGRAM ON HOLD: House bill cuts off spending for system
By MARC HELLER
TIMES WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT
TUESDAY, JULY 14, 2009
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WASHINGTON — Congress is on the verge of putting on hold a national system to track livestock, telling the Obama administration it will not fund the effort until the U.S. Department of Agriculture does a better job implementing it.
The House passed a spending bill Thursday that cuts off funding for the National Animal Identification System, even as USDA officials take suggestions from farmers and others who will be affected by the program, which is aimed at halting the spread of diseases that can contaminate food.
Lawmakers are grappling with several issues, including whether the voluntary system should be made mandatory and, if it remains voluntary, how to boost participation beyond the 35 percent or so of producers nationwide who take part. A group opposed to the system has sued the USDA, asking a federal court to halt the program's implementation.
The USDA has spent $142 million on the program since 2004.
Criticism of the program comes from two directions. On one are lawmakers such as Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., who pushed through the funding cut and has pushed for a mandatory system.
On another are groups such as the Empire State Family Farm Alliance, which has said the national system is unnecessary and will cost farmers several times the $3 to $4 per animal that officials have estimated.
The group said the federal system, as well as one being implemented by the New York state Department of Agriculture and Markets, are "among the most intrusive surveillance systems the government has ever created," designed to keep track of every head of any livestock animal, from birth or hatching to death.
That is just the goal the program's advocates embrace. They say a comprehensive system is needed in response to illnesses such as mad cow disease and swine and avian flu, which have sparked alarm in consumers and led to steep declines in sales of beef and pork even though scientists say such fears are exaggerated or misplaced. The system would allow the government to track each animal's movement throughout its life, possibly pinpointing where it contracted an illness within 48 hours.
Some farm groups say they worry that the government would overstep, killing entire herds or all of a farmer's chickens, for instance, if an illness were revealed. Many farmers oppose a mandatory system.
In addition, farm groups say the system will be costly to farmers — especially to small farms that would have to put tags on every animal. The largest farms, called concentrated animal feeding operations, would be exempt from that requirement and would have one NAIS identification number for an entire herd.
But large agribusinesses favor the program, and the American Farm Bureau Federation sparked controversy and confusion in the farm community by supporting a mandatory system – although it has said its support depends on the system being as inexpensive as possible for farmers and on the confidentiality of information farmers share with the government.
Farm Bureaus in Missouri and other states followed the national Farm Bureau’s lead, but New York Farm Bureau has never supported a mandatory system, said a spokesman, Peter Gregg. New York Farm Bureau supports a national system, but on a voluntary basis, he said.
The National Milk Producers Federation, representing dairy farmers' bargaining cooperatives, also supports a mandatory system.
A spokeswoman for the New York Department of Agriculture and Markets, Jessica Chittenden, defended the importance of an animal identification program to protecting food safety but had no information about how a cuttoff of the NAIS would affect New York's own program.
Yet the issue has caused little splash in some key New York congressional offices. A spokeswoman for Sen. Kirsten E. Gillibrand, D-N.Y., said her office has not heard much on the subject, even though the senator serves on the Senate Agriculture Committee, which oversees the USDA. A spokesman for Rep. Scott Murphy, D-Glens Falls, one of just two New Yorkers on the House Agriculture Committee, had no immediate information about his views on the subject, although he voted for the bill that cuts off funding.
In one of the stiffest challenges to the program, the Farm-to-Consumer Legal Defense Fund sued the USDA to block the system and has said the department should focus instead on enforcing existing laws, including inspections of slaughterhouses, and should bar the import of animals from countries with known disease problems.
The USDA recently finished a tour of 14 locations around the country to take suggestions on the program. Officials are still considering those comments, which news reports and industry groups say were largely negative from producers.
"The USDA continues to confuse industry support for efforts to identify and eliminate animal diseases with support for NAIS, despite the fact that some 80 percent of the people who testified during the hearings testified against the department's animal identification program," said the group's acting president, Pete Kennedy.
Whether the department can reach decisions before Congress makes a final decision about funding remains to be seen. In public comments, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack has stressed that Congress is in early stages of setting the budget.
The Senate Appropriations Committee approved $14.6 million for the program, meaning a House-Senate conference committee likely will make the final decision. The Senate could vote on its bill this month but a final spending measure may not come until after the annual August recess.