Family farmers wary of government’s planned animal-tagging system

GOT HER GOAT <br>Betty McCorkle, who raises goats and also sells baby chicks from her small farm in Oroville, is among those worried that the government’s animal-tagging program is being driven by huge agribusiness firms to make scapegoats of family farmers in the event of disease outbreaks.

Betty McCorkle, who raises goats and also sells baby chicks from her small farm in Oroville, is among those worried that the government’s animal-tagging program is being driven by huge agribusiness firms to make scapegoats of family farmers in the event of disease outbreaks.

Photo By Tom Angel

Not free: The USDA says there will be no charge to participate in the NAIS, which is set to become mandatory in 2009, but farmers will have to bear the cost of whatever tagging system is decided upon as well as the record-keeping associated with tracking their animals’ movements off the farm.

To Betty McCorkle, who raises goats on her small farm near Oroville, it’s like a scene out of Animal Farm: The government plans mandatory tagging and tracking of virtually every farm animal and barnyard pet in the nation.

“It’s going to literally destroy small, family farms,” she said.

Born of tainted-meat scares and terrorism, the National Animal Identification System (NAIS) is expected to tag and track almost every farm animal—including cattle, llamas, horses, goats, poultry and sheep—that is expected to travel away from its home.

The NAIS calls for animals to be fitted with a tag or microchip, tattooed, or otherwise identified. Animals that “move through the production chain in large groups” may get a single lot number. When an animal is sold or otherwise transported, it must be reported. Each farmer, animal owner, auction house or fairgrounds would also have to have a “premises ID.”

Not only would such a system protect consumers from meat contaminated by diseases, the U. S. Department of Agriculture contends, but it would keep other countries confident in the nation’s lucrative export market.

The program will start as voluntary, but is set to become mandatory in 2009.

Some family farmers and people who raise animals as a hobby fear they will be subject to great expense, government scrutiny and invasion of privacy by everyone from animal-rights activists to competing businesses.

They envision an oppressive, Big Brother-type system in which farmers will be fined if their cow breaks through a fence into a neighbor’s pasture, in which farmhouses will be mapped by GPS and in which people—such as the Amish—who oppose modern technology on personal or spiritual grounds will have it forced upon them.

McCorkle believes the government’s efforts are being driven by corporate farming big-names such as Monsanto, Tyson and Cargill. If contamination can be tracked back to a small, family farm, the corporations can keep their hands clean by passing down blame, she contends.

“It’s all government control,” she said. “If they control the food supply, they control the people.”

She is joined in her skepticism by several people and groups including Californians against NAIS and Farm for Life, an organization based in New York with a newsletter on NAIS-related issues. Web sites such as and have sprung up to further the anti-NAIS cause.

As the government’s plans have become more well-known, the NAIS issue has divided farmers. Several farmers dropped their membership in the American Dairy Goat Association in protest when the association refused to denounce the program. Even the nation and state versions of the Farm Bureau are on opposite sides, with the California arm supporting the NAIS and the national Farm Bureau opposing it.

The USDA has assembled “working groups” for each species, with representatives from the farming public making recommendations on which tagging system should be used. (For example, the cattle group supports radio frequency identification—RFID—tags.)

At a meeting held Feb. 23 at the Butte County Farm Bureau offices in Oroville, representatives from the Redding office of the California Department of Food and Agriculture showed up at McCorkle’s request to answer questions about the system.

“There are quite a few producers who think we are going too slowly,” said the CDFA’s Dr. Charles Palmer, a veterinarian who supervises one of four district offices in the state and covers territory from San Francisco to the Oregon border. “We need to know when animals were exposed and where they may be now.

“It’s going to track every movement, eventually,” he said.

Palmer twice traveled to England while the “mad cow disease” outbreak was in full swing, and watched as entire herds were slaughtered while distraught family farmers looked on in horror.

“It was like the perfect storm of animal disease,” Palmer said of the bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) outbreak. “The disease was spread up and down the entire country before it was even diagnosed.”

Victor Vélez, who also represented the CDFA at the Oroville meeting, was in Los Angeles when backyard chickens were hit by Exotic Newcastle Disease in 2002 and 2003. “There were chickens literally dying in front of you.”

The NAIS, which Vélez said would not reveal data to anyone outside the government, would allow the U.S. to respond quickly and more efficiently if an outbreak is detected, the CDFA and USDA contend, and if agroterrorism were to occur, its impact could be limited.

“We live in different times,” he said. “We have the responsibility to be prepared for the worst-case scenario.”

Vélez asked meeting participants not to “shoot the messenger,” and mentioned a half-dozen other nations that have mandatory tagging and tracking programs, or are about to.

Even so, the CDFA representatives found themselves at the receiving end of criticism of the program, and of the USDA and CDFA for not giving the public a clearer picture of what’s planned.

“I don’t think it’s necessary. I think it’s entirely invasive on our privacy as individuals,” said Jeff Wyles, who with his wife, Diana, breeds and raises rabbits to sell and also has some pheasants. “I don’t see the point of this, frankly. What are the consequences if [we] refuse?”

“Why are they getting in our face on these things?”

As 4-H leaders, the Wyleses go to about 17 shows a year. Under the NAIS, children would have to report to the government each time one of their animals was transported to a fair, parade, competition or anywhere else.

Noel Carlson raises sheep and Saxony ducks on eight acres in Quincy, in Plumas County. She’s worried not enough people will become aware of the proposals in time to comment on them by the July 2006 deadline.

Some local farmers also hinted that immigrant animal-keepers may be less likely to comply with new rules, and wondered how they would be enforced.

On the flip side, Bill McElroy, who has horses, goats and cattle, said he felt the NAIS program could do some good. “If [animal disease/meat contamination] was my problem, I want to be able to control it. If it’s not my problem, I don’t want to be in a situation where I’m quarantined,” he said.

Vélez called the NAIS an “evolving program,” and likened it to the tracking of tuberculosis that has been done since the 1920s. He said the program won’t be that much different from one most raisers of goats and sheep are already voluntarily participating in to track scrapie, a disease that strikes those hooved species. (Rendering plants are so afraid of scrapie that the owners of dead sheep and goats have to bury them on their property or pay more than $100 per carcass to the few places that will take them.)

It’s unlikely that farmers will be required to individually tag chickens (each flock would get a number), but each cow will probably receive a label, Vélez said. Rabbits are not expected to be included in the NAIS, nor are dogs, cats, rodents nor “caged exotic fowl” such as parakeets.

“It is still voluntary at this point,” reiterated Palmer, who himself has raised sheep and dairy goats. And, despite the agency’s stated goal of having the program in place by January 2009, the USDA has no funding to implement the program save for an initial $14 million allocated for outreach. Each state must adopt a version of the NAIS, and so far Texas’ plan has been the most far-reaching. That state also plans to charge premises registration fees of $10 a year.

Vélez urged local farmers to support the program, promising there is no evil intent on the part of the government. “What we’re trying to do here is minimize the impact. It’s not going to stop it completely,” he said.