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Peeved Ranchers Lambaste Federal Effort to ID Herd Animals

PASCO -- Five years after the federal government started a program to trace livestock in the event of a disease outbreak, just 36 percent of ranchers are taking part.

U.S. Department of Agriculture officials found out why Monday, when 75 Western livestock producers gave them an earful during a meeting. The "listening session" was one of seven scheduled around the country in May and June to hear ranchers' concerns, with the goal of increasing participation in the program.

Those concerns haven't changed much in five years: The cost is too high for small farmers. The regulations amount to bureaucratic suffocation. The program neither prevents nor controls disease. And what's in a farmer's pasture is nobody's business.

"This is the last of your freedom, boys. Freedom restricted is freedom lost," said Bert Smith, a cattleman from Layton, Utah, who owns Ox Ranch in Ruby Valley, Nev.

The nationwide tracking system, started in 2004, is intended to pinpoint an animal's location within 48 hours after a disease is discovered. Farmers were to have voluntarily registered their properties with their states by January 2008. Mandatory reporting of livestock movements was to begin one year later.

Just 36 percent of the nation's estimated 1.4 million farm "premises," which includes farms' multiple locations, are registered.

As of March 31, the USDA has obligated $119.4 million toward the program, which it says will help ensure the safety of the food supply, particularly for export markets that may refuse to accept U.S. beef, pork or poultry during a disease outbreak.

During the recent swine flu epidemic, several countries banned U.S. pork products, even though there is no evidence the virus is spread by food.

The proposed system does nothing to prevent disease, and animal tracking would be better left for states to handle themselves, said Wade King, president of the Cattle Producers of Washington.

"USDA should be focused on preventing the disease instead of tracing it," he said.

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