by Pettus Read
During the 88th American Farm Bureau Federation annual meeting held in Salt Lake City, Utah, January 7 - 10, Tennessee Farm Bureau's voting delegates voted along with other farmers from around the nation to
continue their support of an animal identification program in this country. The delegates voted 85 to 15 percent in favor of a voluntary program. They also supported consideration of legislation to ensure confidentiality of producers' data and provide cost-share assistance from the federal government to encourage participation.
For the past year, Tennessee's farming community has been in a continuous debate on the program, concerning the possibilities of it becoming mandatory at some later date. Currently, about 343,000 livestock premises, nearly a quarter of those nationwide, have enrolled in the United States Department of Agriculture's program. The goal is to register a majority of livestock premises by 2009.
The program was implemented in Tennessee in the summer of 2005 and to this date approximately 13,000 Tennessee sites where livestock is kept have been identified. The program is under the guidance of the Tennessee Department of Agriculture, where it should be administered, and can trace within 48 hours an animal's identification in the event of a disease outbreak.
The program is designed for tracing movement and to give information for protecting our national food supply. It is not intended for production management, marketing cost or income, and most certainly is not intended for the government to keep an "eye-in-the-sky" on where all our farmers live and what they do. The information ID tags currently placed in animal's ears do not send out transmissions or signals that can be read by computers at a distance or by satellites overhead as some folks may think. They are designed to be read by handheld scanners just like your groceries are at the grocery store.
There are three events that require animals to have ID tags: when cattle enter commerce, when they cross state lines, and when they are commingled with other animals.
Bruce Knight, USDA undersecretary for marketing and regulatory programs, spoke to livestock producers attending the American Farm Bureau Federation's 88th annual meeting. He urged them to participate in the voluntary nationwide program that could help prevent an animal disease outbreak from becoming widespread.
"The threat of a foreign animal disease outbreak is very real," Knight said, mentioning agri-terrorism as one possible catalyst for such an outbreak. "We need you involved to make the animal identification system effective and minimize the damage from an outbreak."
"It's a voluntary program, and it's not going to go mandatory in the future," Knight said. When asked by a member of the audience whether he can guarantee that members of Congress and future presidential administrations would keep the plan voluntary, Knight said he believes it would be unlikely for any public official to change the plan in light of the intense criticism he or she would receive from angry producers.
Regarding the confidentiality of the National Animal Identification System, Knight sought to relieve the concerns many producers feel by stating the program would be maintained by state government and private entities, not the federal government. "We have built safeguards in the system to ensure producer information is kept confidential and used only in declared emergencies," he said.
Knight said if producers would take a few minutes now to register their premises in the National Animal Identification System, it could save them in the long run.
"Delays lead to losses in livestock, income, markets and labor," he said. "A viable animal identification system will reduce unnecessary losses."
He also encouraged livestock producers to remember the costs of a disease outbreak - which likely would involve quarantines - to neighbors and communities when they weigh the pros and cons of premises registration. The more producers enrolled in the NAIS, the more likely the source of a disease outbreak could be traced within 24 hours.The consumer wants to know their food supply is safe and the ID program is an important step in keeping Tennessee's producers and their products in the consumer market. The era of accountability is here.