Animal ID database: Big brother or better business?

WASHINGTON -- After days of parading around her beefy black steer in the dung-scented August heat at the Colorado State Fair, Brandi Calderwood made the final competition.

WASHINGTON -- After days of parading around her beefy black steer in the dung-scented August heat at the Colorado State Fair, Brandi Calderwood made the final competition.

For months, the 16-year-old had worked from dawn to well past dusk, fitting in the work around school, to feed, train and clean her steer. But just before the last round, when the animals are sold, fair officials disqualified her.

They alleged that Brandi had not properly followed a new and controversial rule that requires children to register their farms with a federal animal-tracking system. After heated words, Calderwood and her family were told to leave. A security guard trailed Brandi and her mother, even to the restroom.

"Emotionally she went through the ringer and didn't get the honor of showing in the sale. For a 16-year-old, that's a big deal," says Cathy Calderwood, Brandi's mother.

A Bush administration initiative, the National Animal Identification System is meant to provide a modern tool for tracking disease outbreaks within 48 hours, whether natural or the work of a bioterrorist. Most farm animals, even exotic ones such as llamas, eventually will be registered. Information will be kept on every farm, ranch or stable. And a database will record every animal movement from birth to slaughterhouse, including trips to the veterinarian and county fairs.


Farmers revolt

But the system is spawning a grass-roots revolt.

Family farmers see it as an assault on their way of life by a federal bureaucracy with close ties to industrial agriculture. They point out that they will have to track each individual animal while vast commercial operations will be allowed to track whole herds.

Privacy advocates say the database would create an invasive, detailed electronic record of farmers' activities.

Despite the administration's insistence that the program is voluntary, farmers and families, such as the Calderwoods, chafe at the heavy-handed and often mandatory way states have implemented it, sometimes with the help of sheriff's deputies.

The result is a system meant to help farms that many farmers oppose.

"It's totally ridiculous," says Joaquin Contente, who oversees 1,700 Holsteins on his Hanford, Calif., dairy farm. Contente says existing regulations in California and other states meant his cows and their movements were well documented.

"We already have a good paper trail. It will be more of a burden for the small-to-average producer," says Contente, who worries about the expense for an average-size farm such as his.


Run by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the system is meant to help combat threats such as avian flu and mad cow disease.

"Right now, we have six different disease-eradication programs, and they don't always communicate with each other, and they're paper-intensive," says Bruce Knight, a USDA undersecretary. "That worked fine in the last century, but that isn't the way to run a rapid-response system in the 21st century."

Justification for the database

Cattle groups were working on a registration system when, in 2003, a mad cow disease scare in Washington state set the industry on edge. A diseased Canadian cow had entered the United States with 81 other cows, but only 29 could be found. More than 250 animals from 10 different herds were destroyed in the investigation.

Foreign beef trade stopped immediately, with industry losses estimated at $2 billion to $4 billion. Trade still has not fully recovered.

Within the cattle industry, the database is seen as essential to restore U.S. exports in the international market. There are more than 100 million beef cattle and about 10 million dairy cows in the United States. The world's largest beef consumer, the European Union, is sensitive to mad cow disease because of outbreaks in Britain.

The first stage of the animal ID system involves free registration of the "premises" where livestock is kept. A seven-digit number is stored by the federal government.

The second stage involves identifying animals with a microchip or a plastic or metal ear tag containing a 15-digit code. Federal officials aim to register cattle, bison, poultry, swine, sheep, goats, deer, elk, horses, mules, donkeys, burros, llamas and alpacas. Household pets are not included.


The third stage, not yet in effect, would require farmers to report animal movements to the database within 24 hours.

Farms that move animals in bulk from feedlot to slaughterhouse can get one animal ID for the entire herd. But smaller farmers who move and sell animals individually would have to get each animal an ID at a cost of about $1.50 apiece.

The worst end of the deal

Small farmers are complaining about the cost of ID microchips and technology readers, as well as the labor costs involved in tracking and tagging animals.

"The small guy will get hit the hardest," says Pam Potthoff, of Women Involved in Farm Economics, whose family runs a cow and calf farm in Trenton, Neb.

Other farmers argue that a one-size-fits-all system is not appropriate. "Where is the scientific proof that small farmers pose the same disease risk as large, confined feeding operations?" asks Judith McGeary, an Austin, Texas, farmer and lawyer who founded the Farm and Ranch Freedom Alliance to fight the database system. "I could have been convinced that there were benefits to this program if they had come back and said here are the studies, here's the epidemiology."

McGeary, who raises grass-fed lamb, free-range poultry and laying hens, says the program could cripple smaller family farms and organic growers. "It will be impossible to report every death, every coyote carrying off a chicken -- you just can't," she says.

Some Amish and Mennonite farmers have left agriculture rather than comply, says lawyer Mary-Louise Zanoni, who volunteers to work for the farmers. There is a fear that the system is a manifestation of the Mark of the Beast foretold in the Bible's Book of Revelations.


Revelation 13:16-18 tells of an evil force that will manifest itself as an outside entity that forces people to buy or sell things under a numbering system.

"We feel the premises registration, animal ID issue, is an act of the Antichrist," a group of Old Order Amish farmers writes in a letter to Wisconsin agriculture officials.

USDA's Knight says he is aware of the Amish concerns but counters that one common-sense solution is to sign communities up for a premises ID and not for individual animal IDs. He dismisses reports that Amish or Mennonite farmers have given up farming because of the system.

"This is rife with rumor," he says.

What are 'necessary levels'?

The administration originally wanted mandatory participation in the database when it was unveiled in 2005, but an outcry from farmers and ranchers forced a shift to voluntary registration. Agriculture officials warned, however, that the program would remain voluntary only if enough farms participated. One draft plan commits the department to meet by 2011 "necessary levels of participation," defined as 70 percent of animals in a species.

States and farm groups, such as the National Cattlemen's Foundation, can implement the system as they want. In fact, President Bush has not registered his Crawford, Texas, ranch or the eight head of cattle he keeps, according to a White House spokesman.

Still, opponents of the ID system say USDA actions are making the program virtually compulsory. Since 2004, USDA has pledged more than $51 million to states and farm groups to promote premises registration -- but they must register a certain number of farms to get the money.


"They only get the money if they get the performance," says Knight, who acknowledged "a great deal of resistance out there."

Some states have responded by registering farms in less-than-voluntary ways.

Idaho, New York and Massachusetts issued premises numbers to livestock owners unasked. Texas adopted regulations for elk that initially required microchips and a report of any movements "by the close of the next business day." Wisconsin told milk producers that cheese plants could not take milk from farms without a premises number. North Carolina announced that only farmers with a premises ID could receive drought aid.

Michigan required any cattle leaving a farm to have radio-frequency ID chips with individual numbers. When one farmer refused, arguing that he only sells to people he knows from his 20-head herd, the state agriculture department showed up with a search warrant, sheriff's deputies and state troopers to tag and test his animals.

Effects on future farmers

Many farmers also deeply resent the way USDA's youth programs, including 4-H and Future Farmers of America, are requiring children such as Brandi Calderwood to register.

"This is like the government saying your kids can't be in your community soccer program unless you register your home with the government," Cathy Calderwood says. "It's just way too much Big Brother."

The Calderwoods and some other families had registered their animals with the county fairground's number because fair rules had called for a "valid" number. After disqualifying Brandi, officials said she could stay if she registered her farm. The Calderwoods, opponents of the database, refused.


Fair officials paid Brandi the sum she would have gotten for her steer, but Brandi says: "It is too bad that the state fair had to ruin my experience."

John Stulp, Colorado's agriculture commissioner, says 480 other fairgoers registered without complaint.

About 28 percent of the premises in Colorado are registered, he says, but more are needed to safeguard the state's $16 billion agriculture industry.

"We have a responsibility to protect and enhance our agriculture industry," Stulp says. "Part of that is to make sure we rapidly respond to some kind of disease outbreak or threat in our state."

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