They've all weighed in: the National Pork Board, the American Association of Bovine Practitioners, the North American Elk Breeders Association, the American Dairy Goat Association and others.
Representatives from about 70 organizations with links to raising, breeding, caring for or slaughtering the nation's livestock have worked together during the past two years to develop industry guidelines for a national animal identification system.
The Agriculture Department, which formed the group's steering committee, says such a system is needed in case of an animal health crisis. The goal is to be able to track down any livestock-cow or pig or goat-within 48 hours of an outbreak of disease.
It hasn't been easy. The United States has no nationwide system but rather a state-by-state network. Most experts agree on the need, but opinions differ on how it should be carried out. Questions include:
- Who should bear the brunt of funding a program?
- Should it be voluntary or mandatory?
- Exactly how much of the data collected on livestock should be made public?
- Should a specific kind of electronic tagging be required?
The disease, technically called bovine spongiform encephalopathy, is fatal in cattle and can in rare cases be transferred to humans. In the 1990s, the disease swept through the United Kingdom, creating havoc for cattle farmers as sales fell at home and abroad.
"The support from many of the stakeholders got much greater after December," says Neil Hammerschmidt, USDA coordinator for National Animal Identification Systems. Since then, most countries-including Japan and Korea, two of the largest importers of U.S. beef-have closed their doors. Only 10 percent of beef produced in the United States is exported. Those exports, however, account for 20 percent of the beef industry's revenues, because they tend to be the highest quality products, says Scott Stuart, president of the National Livestock Producers Association.
On April 27, Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman announced that the agency would provide $18.8 million to implement the National Animal Identification System in fiscal 2004. The administration has proposed an additional $33 million for fiscal 2005. In August, USDA is expected to issue voluntary standards-incorporating many of the development team's recommendations-and evaluate existing systems, according to Hammerschmidt.
Only about 10 percent of all cattle today are electronically tagged. The rest are identified through plastic tags, branding, leg bands and other methods. An electronic tag works like a toll pass at a gate. Plastic tags and branding are simply visual markers.
But setting up a complete database requires money-at least $500 million, says Stuart. And that's just the government's share. Ranchers and producers would be expected to pay for tagging their animals, at an estimated cost of $3 to $5 a head, although some ranchers say it will be higher. Given that there are about 100 million cattle in the country, industry's tab could reach $500 million.
Many expect the government to enforce a national identification system, Hammerschmidt says, but the Agriculture Department thinks market access-if you don't participate, then you can't sell your beef-might provide enough impetus for producers. "To be successful, this [system] has to have an established level of participation," he says, adding that the current cost of a manda-tory system is "well beyond what we have budgeted. . . . There are other avenues besides government mandate."
Ironically, the producers who were expected to fight a mandatory system tooth and nail now say they want one. "Three to five years ago, if you mentioned mandatory ID, farmers and ranchers would have had such a fit," says Stuart. "When they realized there was such an outcry, the USDA backed off. Now it's turned 180 degrees. Farmers and ranchers say we need it, and the USDA says it should be voluntary."
Stuart says he anticipates that his organization will soon change its policy from supporting a voluntary system to favoring a mandatory program. "The reason is, in a word, international trade," he says. "If we can't trade, we're behind the eight ball."
Jay Truitt, executive director of legislative affairs for the National Cattlemen's Beef Association, disagrees. He expects that at some point a mandatory system will be needed, but for now a voluntary program will work fine.
For Truitt, it makes no sense for the government to spend the time and money to reinvent the wheel. "The system needs to be created in the private sector," he says. "We need to take the systems that work today and use the network as a backbone across the country, instead of trying to create something new that doesn't take advantage of something that's already there.
"We need some basic protocol everyone can go by, but it's counterintuitive to say government can do it cheaper and better," Truitt says. Another reason many producers want voluntary identification is their concern about confidentiality. Truitt says his organization and others fear animal activist groups or competitors could misuse information collected in the databases, including how many cows they have and where they have been. The data even could be used by a terrorist group, producers say, to pinpoint when animals are moving through a collection point and to introduce a disease.
Many producers want most of the information to be available exclusively to animal health inspectors-preferably at the state level only-and exempt from Freedom of Information Act disclosure rules.
As long as the program is voluntary, Hammerschmidt says, it can be confidential and Homeland Security can declare it "protected critical infrastructure information." If it becomes mandatory, then Congress would have to pass legislation exempting the data from FOIA.
Also of concern is how specific the standards will be. Numerous technology businesses are eager to get a bite of what promises to be a very big pie, and are lobbying heavily. For example, the National Animal Identification Development Team initially suggested using radio frequency identification tags, which can store a large amount of information. But companies that make retinal scanning equipment to identify animals protested. Now the Agriculture Department team uses the term "technology neutral" in its planning, saying the market will sort out which equipment should be used.
But some ranchers fear that failing to specify identification technology will result in another uncoordinated patchwork system. If the producers and government work hand-in-hand, Hammerschmidt says, "we can create a seamless system," but no one believes that will be simple. "If we're going to take time and energy and the cost borne by the private and public sector, we want to make sure it works," says Truitt. "Just putting tags all over the world doesn't do anything."