Ongoing Controversy

By Doug Bartholomew Print this article Print

The nationwide rollout of the USDA’s animal identification system is slow to gain acceptance, even though the RFID technology it is based on is being used to track millions of manufacturing parts and billions of dollars in retail inventory.

Ongoing Controversy

Another issue that has caused controversy concerns the involvement of private agriculture companies. When a disease outbreak occurs, state and federal animal health officials submit information requests to the animal tracking databases, which are intentionally not under the control of government officials. Instead, management of the ATDs has been assigned to several private agriculture companies, including MicroBeef Technologies, AgInfoLink and Global Animal Management.

Some of these companies were active in the National Institute for Animal Agriculture, the forerunner organization that pushed for the establishment of NAIS. “This was a very collaborative effort with state and private partners,” says USDA’s Wiklund.

Despite the reassurance of the USDA, the involvement of these private firms in maintaining the databases has further fueled the suspicion by some farmers that the companies that initially pushed for the technology did so primarily to further their own profit interests—not those of farmers or the public. But Wiklund counters that these vendors are not being paid. “No USDA funds have been expended for these companies to participate,” he says.

This has not quieted the critics, some of whom charge that the involvement of large agricultural interests in the genesis of NAIS may result in its eventual use as a nationwide system for managing large inventories of cloned animals used for food. Again, Wiklund disagrees. “NAIS is strictly for limiting the spread of animal disease—period,” he asserts.

Some state agriculture officials aren’t so sure about that. “NAIS is a traceability program for animal health only, but it could be used to provide additional benefits for producers, such as for inventory management,” says Victor Velez, NAIS program manager at the California Department of Food and Agriculture.

But Velez believes NAIS is necessary. “We’ve been issuing premises numbers for 30 years, so we don’t see this as a new development,” he says. “We have had mandatory animal health programs in California for many years, but the state is not isolated: Our producers import and export to other states.”

Although NAIS participation is voluntary, nearly all state agriculture departments support it. One obvious reason may be federal funding. The USDA has pledged $51 million to states and farm organizations to promote premises registration, but they can qualify only if they sign up enough farms to tag at least 70 percent of each species of farm animal in that state.

Wisconsin got a head start when, beginning in 2001, the Wisconsin Livestock Identification Consortium contracted with Food Logic to create a premises registration system. (The system’s software code was later modified by the USDA and used as the basis for the national premises ID system.)

“A high percentage of our economy in Wisconsin is dependent on cattle and the dairy industry,” says Robert Fourdraine, the consortium’s chief operating officer. “With 60,000 premises registered in Wisconsin, we are probably close to having 90 percent of all premises in the state, and more than 95 percent of the dairy cattle in the state have been ID tagged.”

Other states are lagging behind, and Food Logic’s Kennedy offers a possible explanation: He thinks the government took the wrong approach in trying to sell the animal ID program to farmers. “Animal health and bioterrorism didn’t resonate with farmers,” he says. “They worried that the government would funnel the information to the IRS, and that it just wanted to tax their cattle.”

A better approach for the USDA, according to Kennedy, would have been to give the NAIS a commercial spin, promoting it as a means to help farmers and producers brand their beef, thereby enabling them to command premium prices.

Money talks.

This article was originally published on 2008-04-30
Doug Bartholomew is a career journalist who has covered information technology for more than 15 years. A former senior editor at IndustryWeek and InformationWeek, his freelance features have appeared in New York magazine and the Los Angeles Times Magazine. He has a B.S. in Journalism from Northwestern University.
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