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Farmers Fear a Barnyard Big Brother: National Animal Identification System

  • A federal database of animals to fight disease outbreaks is a threat to privacy and family operations, critics say
    By Nicole Gaouette
    Los Angeles Times, January 14, 2008
    Straight to the Source

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.

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post Today, 12:13 AM

Legal Defense Fund Moves to Stop Animal ID Program;

Files Intent to Sue Letter with USDA and

Michigan Department of Agriculture

Falls Church, Virginia, (May 15, 2008) -- Attorneys for the Farm-to-Consumer Legal Defense Fund today sent a Notice of Intent to Sue letter to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the Michigan Department of Agriculture (MDA) over implementation of the National Animal Identification System (NAIS), a plan to electronically track every livestock animal in the country.

The Notice asks the USDA and MDA to �immediately suspend the funding and implementation of NAIS,?? and �fully and fairly examine?? whether there is even a need for such a program.

Taaron Meikle, Fund president, said that contrary to USDA�s claim, NAIS will do nothing to protect the health of livestock and poultry. �At a time when food safety and costs are a concern, the USDA has spent over $118 million to promote a program that will burden everyone from pleasure horse owners to ranchers and small farmers to individuals who raise a few chickens or steers on their own land for their own use.??

Once fully implemented, the NAIS program would require every person who owns even one livestock or poultry animal (a single chicken or a pet pony) to register their property with the state and federal government, to tag each animal, and to report �events?? to a database within 24 hours. Reportable events would include such things as a private sale, a state fair, or a horse show.

The Notice charges that USDA has never published rules regarding NAIS, in violation of the Federal Administrative Procedures Act; has never performed an Environmental Impact Statement or an Environmental Assessment as required by the National Environmental Policy Act; is in violation of the Regulatory Flexibility Act that requires them to analyze proposed rules for their impact on small entities and local governments; and violates religious freedoms guaranteed by the Religious Freedom Restoration Act.

�We also think there are constitutional issues at stake here,?? Meikle noted. �The requirement to use electronic ear tags or RFID chips violates the religious beliefs of some farmers, such as the Amish, and provisions in a memorandum of understanding between the USDA and the MDA could violate the Fourth and Fifth Amendments to the Constitution by requiring the state to stop and inspect vehicles carrying livestock without a warrant or probable cause.??

The MDA has implemented the first two stages of NAIS �property registration and animal identification � for all cattle and farmers across the state as part of its mandatory bovine tuberculosis disease control program, which is mandated by a grant from the USDA.

�While touted as a disease control program, the NAIS will drive many small farmers out of business?? Meikle noted, �and burden every person who owns even one horse, chicken, cow, goat, sheep, pig, llama, alpaca, or other livestock animal with expensive and intrusive government regulations.??

Joe Golimbieski, a farmer from Standish, Michigan and Fund member, explains: �The cost of the tags is just the start. We�re at the mercy of whatever price the stockyards charge to do the tagging. And our farm doesn�t have extra employees to deal with paperwork. NAIS is likely to put us out of business.??

Gary Cox, General Counsel for the Fund, states that �USDA and MDA have exceeded their authority and they have completely failed to follow the proper procedures. We are calling on the agencies to immediately halt implementation of the program or face appropriate action.??

About The Farm-to-Consumer Legal Defense Fund: The Fund�s mission is to defend the freedoms and to broaden the rights of sustainable farmers and their consumers to produce and consume local, nutrient-dense foods. Concerned citizens can support the Fund by joining at or by contacting the Fund at 703-208-FARM. The Fund�s sister organization, the Farm-to-Consumer Foundation (, works to support farmers engaged in sustainable farm stewardship and promote consumer access to local, nutrient-dense food..

Editor�s Note: The Notice of Intent to Sue the (USDA) and (MDA) is available at



Taaron G. Meikle

President, Farm-to-Consumer Legal Defense Fund and Farm-to-Consumer Foundation


Brian Cummings

Cummings & Company LLC