Animal Identification System: A Prelude to a Human Track and Control Grid?
Lincoln Journal Star | August 30, 2005
By ART HOVEY
Every Nebraska car is supposed to have a license plate and the day is coming when every Nebraska cow will have its own identification number.
A National Animal Identification System, a key to tracing back mad-cow disease, e.coli bacteria, and other potentially lethal meat-safety problems, moved a step closer to reality Tuesday with an announcement from Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns.
In officially ending an investigation into a case of mad-cow disease in Texas that began in June, Nebraska’s former governor also said the private sector would be in charge of a system that is expected to put an electronic ear tag on every new calf by 2009.
That USDA choice appears to resolve a dispute in which cattle producers were worried about the confidentiality of a system run by the government and consumer watchdog groups continue to worry about secrecy and accountability.
Not surprisingly, the Johanns announcement won quick praise from the Nebraska Cattlemen and others involved in beef production in the state.
It was just as quickly criticized by Public Citizen, which recently used the Freedom of Information Act to determine that Nebraska led the nation in meatpacker violations of new safety rules meant to protect the public from mad-cow disease.
It took the eight months from December to August just to get inspection records from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, said Patricia Lovera of Public Citizen's Washington, D.C. office.
"That was not easy to get," Lovera said later Tuesday, "so we're very upset at how much harder it's going to be analyze how well these programs are working if some private entity controls the data."
Allen Bright of Antioch, a western Nebraska cattle feeder and a member of both public and private advisory groups working toward animal identification, said there'no cause for alarm among producers or consumers.
Bright said Tuesday's news fits in with a partnership between the government and the production sector that goes back as far as the 1950s and control of such diseases as brucellosis.
"The fact that people are going to say this is the fox guarding the chickenhouse, no, I don't think so," said Bright, also the Cattlemen's immediate past president. "This is an instance where the industry does a very good job of policing itself."
His evidence is an alignment that includes Nebraska's state veterinarian, local veterinarians, and the federal Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service.
Over decades and through various diseases, those partners "have worked together with producers to do vaccinations and to test and to do all those things to eradicate that disease."
Mike Fitzgerald, a spokesman for the Nebraska Cattlemen in Lincoln, laid out a similar stance on mandatory animal identification.
"We want it to be effective, we want it to be cost effective, we want to protect confidentiality, and we think all that can be accomplished," Fitzgerald said.
Lovera said Public Citizen favors a national animal identification system. She noted that the Texas investigation could not track 21 animals that were herd mates of the infected cow.
"There were animals in there that they couldn't find. So that indicates we do need some sort of system to figure that out."
But Public Citizen favors a public approach. "What happens with the information if it's held by a third party? We know that even some of the smaller producers we talk to are nervous about that."
Van Neidig of Battle Creek, among the owners of a business called APEAS, or Animal Permanent Electronic System, Inc., acknowledged the Freedom of Information Act as a factor in producers’ preferences.
Neidig sees Johanns' announcement as striking the proper balance between producer and consumer needs. Passwords and limited access are part of that approach.
"You should be able to enter an ID number into that system, that network, if you will. It's no different from calling information for a telephone number."
Neidig called it "a huge win for the livestock industry. Yet it maintains everything necessary to insure food products in this country."