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Farmers resist USDA ID system
Bob Boyce talks about the care and maintenance he has taken to ensure the health and well-being of his cattle. (Jason Malmont/The Sentinel)

To say Bob Boyce opposes the USDA’s plan for an animal identification system would be oversimplifying his anger.

As the owner of Lil Ponderosa Enterprises, a 350-acre farm in Lower Frankford Township, Boyce manages a closed herd of 100-125 purebred black angus cattle.

If the Department of Agriculture has its way, he will be required to bear the time and expense of having all of his cattle enrolled in the National Animal Identification System (NAIS).

First proposed by the USDA in 2004, the agency says the NAIS is designed to help producers and animal health officials trace the movement of diseased or exposed livestock or poultry within 48 hours when animal-health events or terrorist threats occur in the United States.

To Boyce, the system is just another mandate from Washington bureaucrats who have no idea how the small farmer operates.

For example, Boyce’s cattle generally don’t end up in other places. He raises them on his sprawling farm and sells the meat directly to customers. Still, he would be forced into the NAIS program.

“If my animals never go to an international market, then why am I being forced to do it?” he asks.

From a public safety standpoint, Boyce doesn’t see the benefits.

“I can’t see how this is going to benefit mom when she goes to the store to buy groceries,” he says. “It’s not going to make our food any safer. If the farmer makes dirty food, it’s still going to be dirty food.”

Initially crafted as a mandatory program, USDA backed off and made NAIS enrollment voluntary in 2006 after vocal opposition from farmers. New Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack is again ramping up pressure to participate in the system. USDA officials recently kicked off a nationwide “listening tour” that included a stop in Harrisburg last week.

“USDA needs to hear directly from our stakeholders as we work together to create an animal disease traceability program we can all support,” Vilsack said.

The USDA recently released a study that said meatpackers may lose as much as $13.2 billion in exports in future years because of the lack of confidence among foreign trade partners in a less-than-comprehensive animal-ID system.

Not enforceable

Boyce says the USDA can’t possibly mandate the program in every corner of the vast United States,

“We get into this thing where the government tries to manage things down too tight,” Boyce says. “This thing is not any more enforceable than stopping you from spitting on the street.”

Ruth Hockley of Carlisle attended the USDA listening session and came away unimpressed.

“Disease control is not an issue for most farmers. They have a whole program developed for no reason at all,” says Hockley, who frequently buys meat at Lil Ponderosa. “The best way to buy food is direct from the farmer where you’re buying what he feeds his family. That’s the best and safest way.”

At best, critics such as Hockley and Boyce say the NAIS system is needed to help regulate Concentrated Animal Feeding Operation (CAFOs), massive farming operations where hundreds of animals are likely to come and go in a year’s time.

Even then, the system has doubters.

The Government Accountability Office released a 2007 report stating that NAIS has flaws that might make it difficult to trace a sick animal back to its origins. The system failed to require the listing of an animal’s species, date of birth, or approximate age, the GAO said.

Pressing on

The USDA seems undeterred by the criticism of NAIS. The agency released its own year-long study in April that pegged the cost of NAIS on the cattle industry at $175.9 million annually — at 90 percent participation. The USDA notes that cost is less than one-half of a percent of the retail value of U.S. beef products.

Still, Boyce speaks for a lot of farmers who just want the USDA to go away.

“If you look at it from the states’ right point of view, they shouldn’t be telling us what to do anyway,” he says.

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