April 20, 2010

Feds alter livestock tracking

Grant would help replace controversial anti-disease tagging program

AUGUSTA -- The state is now eligible to receive $20,000 to upgrade record keeping for tracking livestock.

Maine's state veterinarian, Dr. Don Hoenig, said the funding would allow Maine to review current procedures and move to an electronic format.

"It's a small amount of cooperative agreement money from the USDA," Hoenig said recently. "I haven't applied for it yet, but I'm going to. There's stipulations attached, but it will essentially allow us to look at record keeping, tracing animal movement and issuing identification tags to veterinarians."

The plan would replace the National Animal Identification System, a controversial, expansive livestock-tagging system for tracking animals and regulating farmers to prevent the outbreak of disease.

The USDA announced its intention to revise the system in February. Hoenig attended a meeting in Kansas City in March with colleagues from other states to find a new, more flexible plan for tracing animal diseases.

The National Animal Identification System was introduced after a mad-cow disease scare of 2003, involved tagging animals with 15-digit serial numbers and electronic tags that either dangled from ears or were embedded into hide.

The program has cost $120 million to implement, according to the USDA. Yet only about 35 percent of those eligible for the program registered in the past five years, and only about 10 percent of Maine farmers registered.

Hoenig said the USDA is looking at several data management systems to be provided to each state.

"That would be a tremendous help," he said. "What it would do is help us make all of our record keeping on animal health and identification and tracing animal movements electronic. Instead of us having to go out and purchase or create our own database, they will provide it and allow us to use some of our cooperative agreement funding to maintain and operate it."

Some farmers feel it's not a federal issue at all.

John O'Donnell, who raises grass-fed beef in Monmouth, said Maine should initiate the new program without help from the federal government.

"I think the state needs to have some backbone to start refusing these types of funds," O'Donnell said. "They sound nice, and they do it in the name of food safety, but the reality is there's a whole growth of consumers looking for local products. And these (federal) programs, I believe, are designed to put small producers out of business. It's not the small local farms that are having safety problems. It's the large producers."

Mechele Cooper -- 623-3811, ext. 408

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