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THE NATION

Farmers fear a barnyard Big Brother

A federal database of animals to fight disease outbreaks is a threat to privacy and family operations, critics say.

January 14, 2008|Nicole Gaouette | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — After days of parading around her beefy black steer in the dung-scented August heat at the Colorado State Fair, Brandi Calderwood made the final competition. For months, the 16-year-old worked from dawn well past dusk, fitting in the work around school, to feed, train and clean her steer. But just before the last round, when the animals are sold, fair officials disqualified her.

They alleged that Brandi had not properly followed a new and controversial rule that required children to register their farms with a federal animal tracking system. After heated words, the Calderwoods were told to leave. A security guard trailed Brandi and her mother, even to the restroom.

"Emotionally she went through the wringer and didn't get the honor of showing in the sale. For a 16-year-old, that's a big deal," said Cathy Calderwood, Brandi's mother.

A Bush administration initiative, the National Animal Identification System is meant to provide a modern tool for tracking disease outbreaks within 48 hours, whether natural or the work of a bioterrorist. Most farm animals, even exotic ones such as llamas, will eventually be registered. Information will be kept on every farm, ranch or stable. And databases will record every animal movement from birth to slaughterhouse, including trips to the vet and county fairs.

But the system is spawning a grass-roots revolt.

Family farmers see it as an assault on their way of life by a federal bureaucracy with close ties to industrial agriculture. They point out that they will have to track every animal while vast commercial operations will be allowed to track whole herds.

Privacy advocates say the database would create an invasive, detailed electronic record of farmers' activities. Religious farming communities, such as the Amish and Mennonites, fear the system is a manifestation of the Mark of the Beast foretold in the Book of Revelation.

And despite the administration's insistence that the program is voluntary, farmers and families, such as the Calderwoods, chafe at the heavy-handed and often mandatory way states have implemented it, sometimes with the help of sheriff's deputies.

The result is a system meant to help farms that many farmers oppose.

"It's totally ridiculous," said Joaquin Contente, who oversees 1,700 Holsteins on his Hanford, Calif., dairy farm. Contente said existing regulations in California and other states meant his cows and their movements were well-documented.

"We already have a good paper trail. It will be more of a burden for the small-to-average producer," said Contente, who worries about the expense for an average-size farm like his.

Run by the Department of Agriculture, the system is meant to help combat threats such as avian flu and mad cow disease.

"Right now, we have six different disease-eradication programs, and they don't always communicate with each other, and they're paper intensive," said Bruce Knight, a USDA undersecretary. "That worked fine in the last century, but that isn't the way to run a rapid response system in the 21st century."

Cattle groups were working on a registration system when, in 2003, a mad cow disease scare in Washington state set the industry on edge. A diseased Canadian cow entered the U.S. with 81 other cows, but only 29 could be found. More than 250 animals from 10 different herds were destroyed in the investigation.

Foreign beef trade stopped immediately, with industry losses estimated at $2 billion to $4 billion. Trade still has not fully recovered.

Within the cattle industry, the database is seen as essential to restore U.S. exports in the international market. There are more than 100 million beef cattle and about 10 million dairy cows in the United States. The world's largest beef consumer, the European Union, is sensitive to mad cow disease because of outbreaks in Britain.

The first stage of the animal ID system involves free registration of the "premises" where livestock are kept. That seven-digit number is stored by the federal government, which had registered 440,997 farms as of last week, out of 1.43 million.

The second stage, now under way, involves identifying animals with a microchip or a plastic or metal ear tag containing a 15-digit code.

Federal officials aim to register cattle, bison, poultry, swine, sheep, goats, deer, elk, horses, mules, donkeys, burros, llamas and alpacas. Household pets are not included.

The third stage, not yet in effect, would require farmers to report animal movements to the database within 24 hours.

Farms that move animals in bulk from feedlot to slaughterhouse can get one animal ID for the entire herd. But smaller farmers who move and sell animals individually would have to get each animal an ID at a cost of about $1.50 apiece.

Small farmers are complaining about the cost of ID microchips and technology readers, as well as the labor costs involved in tracking and tagging animals.

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