Animal ID Program Prompts Skepticism

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Ranchers are split over a new federal program that tracks livestock from birth to the slaughterhouse. The system makes it easier to locate animals that may be carrying diseases like foot-and-mouth or mad cow disease.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

A federal system to track livestock is running into resistance from some ranchers. The system would be used in the event of an outbreak of mad cow disease or some other illness posing a threat to humans. Participation is voluntary and so far only one-third of ranches have signed up.

NPR's Jeff Brady went to the National Western Stock Show in Denver to find out why.

JEFF BRADY: Out behind the show in the stockyards, there's a sound that drowns out even mooing cattle.

(Soundbite of hairdryer blowing)

BRADY: This is a high-powered hairdryer, not for the cowboys and cowgirls, but for the cows - like this one Lisa Stream(ph) is grooming.

Ms. LISA STREAM (Rancher): Got to give them a bath and blow their hair dry, and clip their hair short in some places and long in others - make them look pretty and smell pretty.

BRADY: Stream is a rancher from Sheraton, Iowa. She's brought a few animals here to compete in the stock show. She's heard about the national animal identification system, but her family's ranch is among the two-thirds in the country that still haven't registered. She's worried about the cost of electronic ID buttons that are attached to each animal's ear.

Ms. STREAM: Yeah, I've heard the button cost ranges from, you know, like, $1.50 to $3 a button. And then the readers, what they use to scan the tags, can run up close to $1,000 so.

BRADY: That's just too much money to spend right now, maybe later, she says. And she's not alone, especially among ranchers with smaller operations.

The cost is one misunderstanding about the program, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. An expensive electronic tracking system is not a requirement. Most ranchers already have some sort of manual system in place, and the agency says that can work just fine.

Others are worried about sending the government so much information about their business. But agriculture undersecretary Bruce Knight says all that data is kept confidential, and it's used only if there's an outbreak.

Mr. BRUCE KNIGHT (Undersecretary, U.S. Department of Agriculture): I'm a rancher myself. I've registered my premise. I'm not asking anybody to do something that I wouldn't do myself.

BRADY: Other countries already have ID systems, but more often they're mandatory. Knight says it would be difficult to establish such a system here.

Mr. KNIGHT: Farmers and ranchers react very strongly against mandatory things and mandates. We have a strong track record of successfully utilizing voluntary programs and saw that we could move forward much more quickly with a voluntary traceability system.

BRADY: So far, nearly 450,000 ranchers have signed up, and about 1,000 more are joining every month.

(Soundbite of machine noise)

BRADY: Back at the stock show, Gene Steiner(ph) says he registered his small Ohio operation early on. He thinks it's important to the future of the beef industry to be able to locate potentially sick animals quickly.

Mr. GENE STEINER (Rancher): When you look at airborne diseases and how rapidly they can move through the countryside - yeah, we don't worry about days, we worry about hours - and we need to be able to track these animals very rapidly.

BRADY: The USDA has a campaign to encourage more ranchers to sign up. Within two years, the agency has a goal of being able to easily track 70 percent of all beef cattle, from birth to slaughterhouse.

Jeff Brady, NPR News, Denver.

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