Proponents say the program would safeguard U.S. animal -- and potentially human -- health. But opponents such as U.S. Sen. Jim Talent, R-Missouri, and U.S. Rep. Jo Ann Emerson, R-Cape Girardeau, say the plan oversteps government's role and could become overly burdensome on an already taxed agriculture industry.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture "has spent $100 million on trying to do this program," Emerson said Tuesday from Washington, D.C. "They've been working on it for two or three years. And if they can't do this program and protect confidentiality, liability and affordability, then they shouldn't do it at all."
Last week, Emerson and Talent introduced a bill that would prohibit the USDA from making the animal identification system mandatory. Both Emerson and Talent said Tuesday the market should dictate whether such a system is needed. A mandatory system, they said, would make farmers' records available to their competitors, cost too much for some to implement and do nothing to protect a food system that is already safe.
But the USDA, some area farmers and a livestock specialist say that's not true.
"In the event of an outbreak, we can more accurately determine the scope of the outbreak and get the resources on the scene to contain it," said Dore Mobley, a spokeswoman for the USDA's Animal and Plant Health Inspection System.
The National Animal Identification System was introduced by the USDA in 2004. Mobley said the main objective is to develop and implement a comprehensive information system to help health officials respond quickly to animal health emergencies.
The plan calls for placing radio-frequency tags on certain animals -- mainly livestock and poultry -- to help monitor and track the animals and safeguard against diseases. The most worrisome one is bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) or mad cow disease, a chronic, degenerative disorder affecting the central nervous system of cattle.
When the plan was proposed, Mobley said, USDA officials discussed making the system mandatory but ultimately did not.
"This is a totally voluntary program," she said. "It's controversial, but it is still in its developmental stages. When it was suggested that it was mandatory, we were throwing it out there as a discussion. We wanted to know what our meat producers thought. Now we know."
The NAIS program would allow meat producers to place radio frequency tags about the size of a half-dollar on a cow's ear or a leg bracelet on a chicken. The system asks producers to register their animals, tag them and then track them with the help of the tag.
That way, proponents say, a disease could be tracked and isolated within 48 hours should an outbreak occur. At least that's the USDA's goal.
Talent takes exception to the program's implication that the country's food supply is already in danger. That's not the case, he said.
"If people want to participate, it could be a useful marketing tool," he said. "They could prove to customers the age of the livestock and that it's from where they say it is. But we introduced this legislation to make sure that the voluntary aspect to the program doesn't change."
Farmers seem divided. Mark Boardman, a Cape Girardeau County livestock owner at Flickerwood Farms, acknowledged the program could be labor-intensive and costly. But he thinks it should be mandatory.
"If you buy a car you have a right to know where it was made," he said. "And if it's mandatory for one, it should be mandatory for all."
But Rachel Fasnacht of Family Friendly Farm on Route V, 10 miles north of Cape Girardeau, said a mandatory system would wipe out the small farm she and her husband operate. "There should be no government involvement whatsoever," she said. "It does not provide safer food. It doesn't do anything they promise it's going to do."
Family Friendly Farm has 3,000 chickens and four head of cattle. If the tags are $10, she said, they would have to shut down. "No one even knows for sure what it's going to cost," she said. "If there's an outbreak, it's already too late."
Roger Eakins, a livestock specialist at the University of Missouri Extension Office in Jackson, said the cost of tags would be around $3 apiece.
He said farmers who have attended his talks on the subject are divided.
He raises the specter of a disease being introduced into the food chain in this age of terrorism.
"If a disease isn't contained it could be billions and billions of dollars," he said. "We need a plan in place so that it can be isolated and contained."
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