Natural Foods Merchandiser

Federal livestock ID debate heats up

Nearly 300 farmers and ranchers gathered in protest earlier today during a town-hall meeting hosted by the United States Department of Agriculture to discuss a National Animal Identification System.

The meeting at the Truman Hotel and Convention Center in Jefferson City, Mo. attracted critics from several organizations who spoke out against the USDA's push for mandatory NAIS.

"This is more about making the USDA larger and growing government than it is about food safety," said Paul Hamby, an organizer of the protest and owner of a dairy supply store.

Fifty-five people spoke during the meeting, but only one person β€” Brent Sandidge, a Missouri pork producer β€” spoke in support of the system to ID livestock.

"I think it's an issue that is critically important for animal-disease control," Sandidge said. "Being able to shut down quickly is extremely important to our causes."

The USDA and more than 40 members of Congress want to make the NAIS mandatory. Right now it's voluntary under the Animal Protection Act of 2002. But officials say a mandatory NAIS system will help stop livestock disease by creating a tracking and recall system that will help make food safer and restore public confidence in the nation's food supply.

If passed, the law would require radio-tagging or micro-chipping of nearly all livestock, even poultry. At a time when disease outbreaks have consumers worried, a mechanism to quickly track and contain disease sounds good to many. But some small farmers and ranchers say the system will put them out of business.

The cost of identifying the animals can cost anywhere from $6 to $60 per animal. Large corporations that can register hundreds of animals under one ID and absorb much of the cost can't be compared to small farms that could face an initial yearly burden of $4,000 to $10,000, Hamby said.

But Sandidge, who describes his business as a small family operation, as well, said he understands some of the other farmers' concerns, but preventing disease and stopping it from spreading in light of issues like Great Britian's foot and mouth disease will equate to good business in the long term. He added that any farm associated with diseased animals that impacts public health would be "devastated."

Many small farmers say it is the large slaughter outfits that pose the greatest threat to public health and should pay the price; not the small family farm.

"All food safety issues have happened at the processing plant over the last 10-to-20 years," Hamby said. "And as far as tracking goes, the meat processors already have that information."

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