The federal government is phasing in a national identification tracking system for livestock to help trace and curb threats, such as Mad Cow disease and even bio-terrorism. One state is even advancing what it calls micro-chip, injectable social security numbers for livestock. But many farmers worry that Big Brother may be moving into the barn. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Joyce Kryszak reports:
The federal government is phasing in a national identification tracking system for livestock to help trace and curb threats, such as Mad Cow disease and even bio-terrorism. One state is even advancing, what it calls micro-chip, injectable social security numbers for livestock. But many farmers worry that Big Brother may be moving into the barn. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Joyce Kryszak reports:
The Gingerich Farm isn’t hard to find. Its fields are speckled with hundreds of black and white Holsteins. Dairy farmer Earl Gingerich Jr. takes us inside one of the barns for a closer look at some of his babies.
“These are a little noisy over here since we just moved ’em. Some of them tend to bellow…”
Gingerich is rather fond of the five hundred cows on his Western New York farm, and he doesn’t mind the hard work that goes along with them. Seven days a week, in good weather and bad. For him, Gingerich says it’s all about the cows.
“When you get up and you see the animals that are in the background and they’re waiting for you to take care of them and they need you, it’s like having a pet around, and taking that animal and yougrow her up to be a full-size, adult animal, you know why you’re doing it.”
So, Gingerich says anything he can do to protect his herd is a good idea. He takes part in the state’s voluntary vaccination program. Bright orange tags, each bearing a bold black number, are evidence of that. They dangle from the cows’ ears as they flick away barn flies while chewing the newest cut of hay.
(Sound of mooing)
But these tags will soon be obsolete. By 2009, the Department of Agriculture’s national animal identification program will require a standardized tracking system for every livestock animal in the United States.
Bruce Akey is an Assistant Veterinarian for New York state. He says the system will be able to trace the movements of animals backwards and forwards.
“Whether they’re sold to someone else on an individual basis, or they go to livestock markets, or go to slaughter plants, or anything like that, those movements can be recorded at those points at which they pass into commerce, and those movements can also be recorded in a national database.”
It’s the integrity of that database that is one major concern for many farmers and their advocates. They say animal rights extremists or terrorists could also get access to the information on the database about farms.
Farmers worry they could learn about chemicals and medicines used at the farm, and use it against them. Dairy farmer Earl Gingerich knows first-hand what can happen. Someone used a batch of antibiotics to contaminate ten thousand pounds of milk on his farm.
“We did have on a recording, which we couldn’t trace, and it said something to the effect of, ‘This should teach you a lesson now.'”
One microchip ID method being advanced in New York and other states is heightening bio-security concerns. The radio frequency chips can are embedded in ear tags or injected under the animals’ skin.
The stored data is read by large panel scanners at auction barns or hand held models, available to anyone. The cost is also still a big question. Maybe a few dollars for each chip and about five thousand dollars for large readers.
Peter Gregg is spokesman for the state’s Farm Bureau. He says they support a national tracking system, but Gregg says the government will have to make it secure – and pay for it.
“You know, we are operating on too slim of margins as it is to be able to pick up the tab for a program like this, and the other aspect is that we would have to make sure that there is protection of private rights.”
State veteranarian Bruce Akey says the government is listening to those concerns. He says they’re working to make the program cost-neutral or at least share costs with farmers. And Akey says Congress is hearing arguments that a private entity, such as a cooperative, should be allowed to manage the database. Advocates say they prefer that to the government being in charge of private information. But Akey says either way, there has to be a dependable way to track animals.
“It may seem a little like 1984, but it’s the state of technology, it’s the state of the marketplace – on both a national and an international scope,” said Akey. “That along with the fact that we now have diseases like Mad Cow disease and other food safety issues that more and more consumers are demanding that we be able to trace these animals and address the source of the problem.”
For now, states are rushing to comply with the first phase of the national ID program. By March of next year, every livestock and poultry farm in the country must be located and assigned a premises identification number. Then, each and every farm creature – be it cow or horse, elk or fish – will get its very own animal social security number.
For the GLRC, I’m Joyce Kryszak.