Animal ID Big Issue For Small Producers In Northeast States
By David Bowser
CANTON, New York — Mary Zanoni is not a big rancher. She has 11 animals on 25 acres in upstate New York. She has five head of cattle, seven chickens, two cats, a dog and a cockatiel.
She is not happy with the idea of a National Animal Identification System.
"In April 2005, when USDA released the draft strategic plan," Zanoni says, "I saw a small article in Lancaster Farming that mentioned it, so I downloaded it and read it."
Lancaster Farming is a farm publication out of Lancaster, Penn. While she says it primarily focuses on the dairy industry, it is the dominant agricultural publication in the northeastern U.S.
In one issue of Lancaster Farming, Zanoni says, there were a couple of paragraphs buried inside the paper saying the draft had been released.
"It piqued my curiosity," Zanoni says. "I had heard things previously about the USAIP (U.S. Animal Identification Plan) and so forth, but had never read any of them or had any intention to, but I figured, ‘Oh, it's getting serious.’"
"When I read it," she says, "I was amazed. It was overblown and absurd. Insane. Bureaucratic. It was just astounding to me that a relatively small number of people could decide upon doing something like that that would affect such a large number of people without any input from the large number of people."
Zanoni, who has a Ph.D. from Cornell and her law degree from Yale, is executive director of Farm Life, a sustainable agriculture organization in upstate New York. She taught at the University of Texas and clerked for a New Jersey Supreme Court justice.
"I worked with the federal court system," Zanoni says. "I was the head of the staff attorney's office for the federal district courts in New Jersey."
She's also interned at grass-based dairies.
After reading the 2005 draft strategic plan, she began speaking out on the National Animal Identification System.
She's been writing opinion pieces for various publications and speaking to small breed associations and farm groups.
"I spoke at the Northeast Organic Farming Association meeting this summer," Zanoni says. "That was in August. I was on a panel there with a woman from Food and Water Watch from Washington, D.C., and man from the Center for Science in the Public Interest in D.C. and the Massachusetts Commissioner of Agriculture, Doug Gillespie."
Animal owners in Massachusetts were angry with Gillespie because the state department of agriculture took state data they had collected for decades and gave it to the USDA.
"They've historically had an animal census in Massachusetts," Zanoni explains.
Last year, the Massachusetts Department of Agriculture took all those records and sent them to the USDA premises registration database, but neither the farmers nor the legislators knew about it.
Soon Massachusetts farmers were getting notification of their premise ID numbers. A lot of farmers were confused and many of them were angry. They had not signed up for the program.
At the Northeast Organic Farming Association meeting, Zanoni says Gillespie told farmers that technically, because the USDA registration is voluntary, once they've received their registration number, they could go online and get back out of the federal database.
With a laugh, Zanoni says she's now getting reports from farmers who have tried to remove their farms from the database and the government wants them to sign a waiver of their legal rights to be removed from the premise database.
"People don't want to sign that because they say, ‘What if they don't take it out of the database?’" Zanoni says. "They don't know what to do."
Zanoni says the Northeast Organic Farming Association is actively opposing the National Animal Identification System.
She was on a program in Pennsylvania with several National Animal Identification System officials.
That vociferousness apparently resulted in an invitation to speak at the ID Expo in Kansas City, Mo., in late August.
"I was invited by Jim Clement, who organized that session," Zanoni says. "He's the assistant state veterinarian in North Dakota, and he organized that session, so he called me and invited me."
Dr. Clement is also the animal ID coordinator for North Dakota, and Zanoni says she assumes that he wanted different viewpoints at the conference.
"I don't think the NIAA (National Institute for Animal Agriculture) has the least interest in a point of view from outside," Zanoni says.
She thinks they hope to implement the National Animal Identification System eventually, and that the people who don't like it will just go away.
But she says there is growing opposition to NAIS among small livestock producers in the Northeast.
"What's even more surprising to me is that the state regulators who are doing this at the behest of the USDA, they find it surprising that people would consider it objectionable to get this number in the mail of a program that they don't want anything to do with, and it's supposed to be voluntary," Zanoni says.
She says the New York State Department of Agriculture and Markets has also taken data from existing state programs and shared it with USDA.
"The coordinators who work for this state are people whose positions were created with grant money from USDA," Zanoni says.
Their jobs wouldn't exist without the USDA, Zanoni contends.
"These are new positions created because they got grant money from the USDA, so they hired somebody to do NAIS work," she says.
Zanoni says she had one report from a farmer that a woman he contacted with the New York agriculture department told him the state was just taking data from whatever state programs they had and sending it to the USDA and the USDA was assigning premise ID numbers based on that state information.
"Right now, if you look at the NAIS website, they've got 322,000-plus premise registrations," Zanoni says. "There is merit to our contention that there's a difference between volunteering for a program and being forced or being placed in it without even consultation and assenting to it."
She questions how many of those 322,000 are bogus.
"How many of those people can actually show you where Joe Hog Farmer came and filled out a form and said, 'I want to be in the program. I want a premise registration?'" Zanoni asks. "You would think they would be able to show that for every single one of them."
She thinks all the premise IDs USDA has assigned in Massachusetts, New York and now Pennsylvania might be invalid.
"Whatever has been sent in from those three states is apparently completely bogus, and none of those people actually volunteered," Zanoni says. "They just took it from some existing database."
She says some of the property owners might have volunteered, and some of them may still volunteer to join the program, but some of them won't.
"In Vermont, this whole thing has gone through three phases," Zanoni says. "First, the USDA put out the draft strategic plan and said, ‘Here's our intention. We're going to do rulemaking in the summer of 2006 to make this a mandatory program, and here is how we expect it to go.’"
But that rulemaking never happened.
"I guess because they had complaints about it," Zanoni says, "for some reason they didn't want to do that rulemaking last summer."
At least, they didn't do any rulemaking.
"Instead, they put out an implementation plan in April that said they're just going to leave it voluntary for now," Zanoni says, "but if we don't get 100 percent participation, we'll make it mandatory anytime we feel like it. They didn't, couldn't or chose not to make it mandatory that way."
Last year, Zanoni says in some states, the agriculture departments went to their state legislators and said they wanted legislation for mandatory premise identification.
"They did that in Vermont," Zanoni says. "They did that in Maine."
But a lot of animal owners and farmers showed up at hearings and didn't want it.
The legislators didn't want to impose an unpopular program.
In both Maine and Vermont, Zanoni says, legislators told the state agriculture departments they wouldn't pass it that year and to come back and try the next year.
"As I understand it, in Vermont," Zanoni says, "where they don't have any mandatory premises ID, the number of people who volunteered was a few hundred."
In New York State, some 13,000 have been registered.
"In Pennsylvania, they say they've submitted over 25,000," Zanoni says, "but as far as I know, none of those are legitimate volunteers."
Zanoni indicates that she thinks it's more than just an animal health issue.
"You look at this and you see complete top-down imposition of a way of doing something," Zanoni says. "It's all interrelated with the dictates of international trade and the dictates of international animal health. It's a handmaiden for trade."
Right now, she says, the U.S. loves the concept of foot and mouth disease-free versus non-FMD-free areas because the U.S. has no FMD. It's an advantage for the U.S.
"We can use it to bludgeon other countries that aren't FMD-free," Zanoni says. "If we had some FMD in this country, I betcha in a New York minute our agriculture department would be going to the OIE, saying ‘That's a false distinction. Let's do away with it.’"
In fact, she questions whether the National Animal Identification System has anything to do with animal health.
"All of these things, when you start taking them apart and looking at them, they seem to have nothing to do with any really legitimate concerns about health," Zanoni says.
She says animal ID became a priority when bovine spongiform encephalopathy, BSE or mad cow disease, first hit the headlines. She says the reaction to BSE was out of control.
There have been fewer than 200 cases of variant CJD in human beings worldwide.
"It's a really tragic disease," Zanoni ackowledges, "but it's a minute number of people."
There have fewer than 200 deaths of H5N1 avian influenza in the world since they first recognized the strain a decade ago, she says.
"How's this stuff becoming this giant pseudo problem that's somehow dominating our thinking," she asks, "and allowing the imposition of these huge bureaucratic control programs? I simply don't think any government should have such complete knowledge or control over who owns livestock, what are they doing with the livestock, where are they selling the livestock, or where are they putting the livestock."
The USDA keeps assuring everyone that the information will be kept confidential, she says. They say they won't even go into any of the databases unless a disease of concern pops up somewhere.
"The temptation to use these databases for all kinds of other things is going to irresistible," Zanoni counters. "The only way to keep a database from being abused is to not have it."
Zanoni says she doesn't find it comforting that the USDA wants to put the animal-tracking database into private hands.
She also questions the economics of it.
"There's absolutely no cost control," Zanoni says.
She says other federal programs like crop insurance are out of control.
"That's one of those public-private partnerships," Zanoni says of the crop insurance program. "Farmers don't complain about it because their premiums are kept artificially low because they're subsidized, but in the NAIS program, there's not going to be any government subsidy. They keep saying that. They keep saying there will be costs to producers. They won't really define or tell us how much it's going to cost, but there will be costs to producers."
There has been some indication, she says, that the animal ID program won't be cheap.
"We know from the rules that were introduced, although not implemented yet in Texas, that it was going to be at least $10 a year for premise ID, which is probably a realistically low cost," Zanoni says. "We know that the RFID tags that you can get for $3.25 apiece only have a 70 percent read rate, so they're no good. You really have to buy ultra high-frequency tags, which cost $20 a pop. There are an awful lot of things walking around on four legs that don't yield you $20 after you've sold them."
She says she's seen one estimate that the reports filed each time an animal is moved will cost 30 cents.
Zanoni says she expects that to go up. Such cost coupled with the beef checkoff, whether it's a dollar a head or goes up to two dollars a head, will just add to the overhead for small producers.
"It's the exact same thing as the crop insurance scam," Zanoni says. "It's just a way for a few players to make a lot of money off government-sponsored programs. It's even more offensive because the crop insurance isn't mandatory and the farmers at least get the subsidized premiums. In animal ID, you're going to get no subsidy from the government and it's going to be mandatory eventually. Even if you didn't want it, you wouldn't be able to send animals to the auction without it."
The luckiest thing that ever happened to the opponents of animal ID, Zanoni says, is that USDA released the draft strategic plan.
"What a giant mistake that was," Zanoni says. "If they had just gone ahead with all this underhanded subterfuge like assigning the numbers in Pennsylvania and New York, then we wouldn't have known what the heck they were. That incompetence might seem funny, but if they impose the plan and it's mandatory, we're going to put up not only with that degree of incompetence but worse in the running of the plan."