Farmers Say Animal Tracking Data Must Be Kept Confidential

Those are the goals of a nationwide animal-identification system being rolled out to track livestock diseases and possible terrorist attacks

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