Farmers Say Animal Tracking Data Must Be Kept Confidential

ST. CLOUD, Minn. -- Find it. Track it. Stop it.

Those are the goals of a nationwide animal-identification system being rolled out to track livestock diseases and possible terrorist attacks on the nation's food supply.

But while some farmers welcome the move, saying it will help bolster consumer confidence in U.S. meat and help them market around the world, many worry about how much it will cost, who will keep the data that's collected and how it will be used.

The tracking system is being implemented after the nation's first case of mad cow disease and a highly pathogenic outbreak of avian influenza in the past year.

Once it's up and running in the next few years, agriculture officials said, the system will attempt to identify all animals and premises that had direct contact with a foreign animal disease within 48 hours after discovery.

It would use a variety of technologies to track animals and poultry from birth to processing.

There are still many unknowns in the ambitious plan, which is being developed by the government and agriculture industry as they follow in the footsteps of other countries, such as Canada, which track livestock. The U.S. government has awarded initial funding for setting up the project, but farmers expect they'll have to chip in to cover costs and labor.

For now, the system is voluntary, though there's a good chance it will become mandatory later.

What just about everyone seems to agree on, though, is that some sort of animal identification system is needed.

``This system is a very important component in our effort to protect our livestock industries from the harmful impacts of disease outbreaks and the threat of agro-terrorism,'' Minnesota Agriculture Commissioner Gene Hugoson told about 50 farmers in St. Cloud during a session by the U.S. Department of Agriculture to gather farmer input.

The government has allocated $18.8 million in nationwide emergency funding for the first phase, which involves setting up a system to identify as many livestock farms, markets and slaughterhouses as possible in the next year. Minnesota will receive nearly $435,000 in the first phase, which begins in October.

The agency has yet to determine overall costs for the system, which will take several years to fully implement. For 2005, President Bush's budget requests $33 million to continue identifying premises as well as to identify animals, issue tags and test technologies.

The system will track animals across state lines, and later, within states. Data will include the animal's tag number and the date the animal is spotted by government workers on a farm, at a market or in a slaughterhouse.

Farmers from Minnesota, Wisconsin and North Dakota, however, said they want guarantees that the information they provide will remain confidential. They fear that agro-terrorists could use it to introduce diseases. They also worry packers could use it to discount prices to farmers by using projections of meat supplies to manipulate cash-market prices. Officials say that won't happen.

Farmers worry that they might shoulder much of the program cost or that they might be sued if disease outbreaks are traced to their farms.

``Producers should not be held liable for any food-contamination incidents that occur, such as E. coli when meat is improperly processed or handled,'' said Sue Beitlich, president of Wisconsin Farmers Union. ``This is clearly beyond the farmer's control.''

Confidentiality is an issue so contentious that the program is starting out as voluntary while concerns are addressed. It might become mandatory after officials reassess the system.

Donavon Stromberg of the Minnesota Farm Bureau said he fears there will be little compliance unless farmers are assured that the information will not be passed to private companies, and that it won't be used for other regulatory purposes. Stromberg is a dairy farmer from Mora.

William Hawks, undersecretary for USDA marketing and regulatory programs in Washington, D.C., has tried to allay fears. He said the information would not be turned over to private companies or overstep intended regulatory boundaries.

Dale Lueck, an Aitkin County beef farmer, urged officials to make sure that all 50 states develop compatible systems as livestock move across state lines.

``Don't allow 50 states to go out and implement 50 different systems,'' Lueck said. ``That's not a good use of taxpayers' money.''

Steve Peterson of Holstein Association USA called for a mandatory system for trade reasons. ``Without a mandatory animal identification program in this country, we will continue to be denied market access in certain countries throughout the world,'' he said.

Dennis Sjodin, a Cambridge cattle farmer and vice president of the Minnesota Farmers Union, said he's concerned that small farmers might be hit hardest by the additional costs. He and other farmers from Minnesota, Wisconsin and North Dakota asked that the costs be spread equitably among the government, consumers and farmers.

Indications of the program's cost can be found in Good Thunder, Minn.

That's where farmer Paul FitzSimmons uses a radio-frequency identification system that might become the state's model. At his farm, readers that look like tiny paddles are waved over each eartag, which has tiny antennae. They read each 16-digit ID number to track by computer how much each animal eats, as well as other data.

Each tag costs about $2.50, and he and his workers can tag about 10 piglets in 20 seconds. The computer hardware now costs $5,000-$6,000. Software comes with the tags.

``If we have to go to a national ID system, in most cases I think the industry is ready for it,'' FitzSimmons said. ``The technology's there to get it done, but we still have to figure out how to cover the cost.''

With 100 million pigs killed each year in the United States, for example, tag costs alone would be $250 million, he said.

Digital Angel Corp. of South St. Paul makes the radio-frequency eartags. The firm estimates costs for the national ID system at $5 to $7 per animal, spokesman Mike Fearing said