Letter from Langdon: The Cost of Animal Identification

Farmers want to know if a costly identification system for livestock ill pay off for them.

A few years back, the Missouri Department of Agriculture started advocating for NAIS (National Animal Identification System) as a way for ag producers to gain better prices. According to the state department of agriculture back then, the world would beat down the doors to buy from producers who participated.

They even sent out a mailing to every farm in the state, inviting us to sign up…right away! I read mine very carefully, and just as carefully I filed it away with the rest of that day’s mail consisting of credit card and insurance solicitations. 

Keep in mind that NASS (National Agricultural Statistics Service) and USDA already conduct a census of ag producers each year. They keep track of what we grow, how much we have, and the number of acres used to produce it. All that information is made public to anyone who wants it.

Our business is already an open book. As far as farm locations are concerned, USDA obviously has what they say they need or they couldn’t mail us the forms.

So if USDA has the basic information, what’s the big deal about animal and premise ID?

For one thing a central database is lacking, something that unites all the information under one roof. APHIS (Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service) would join the ranks of FSA and NASS by creating the ultimate farm data base, something that would rival in invasiveness the information grain farmers already supply to FSA, because participation in USDA support programs requires full disclosure.

So far, livestock producers have dodged that bullet because in the past USDA has only subsidized them indirectly with cheap grain generated by the farm program.

And I don’t even want to mention the poor record APHIS and FDA already share when it comes to food safety. If they can’t find bacteria in a packing plant, what difference will a radio frequency tag on a live chicken make?

Promoters have had a hard time selling it to rank and file farmers and ranchers who don’t want the burden of a central data base, supposedly locked away, that could become an open book to the big food corporations most of us rely on to buy our animal produce at a fair price.

Notice the emphasis on FAIR.

Tagging would cut the profits from the calf crop in half.

You see, we farmer types on the ground worry about the revolving door effect at USDA. Government employees leave regularly for high paying corporate jobs and administrations regularly make government appointments to corporate insiders.

With all those insiders passing through on their way to success you just have to wonder how many keys there are to the vault.

In fact what was once described as a marketing boon to Missouri producers, and then transformed to disease prevention, is looking more and more like big brother peeking over our shoulder.

Fool me once shame on you, but to fool me twice you may have to change your story. To those of us who are conspiracy theorists it’s just another case of government walking hand in hand with big business.

Compare this idea of animal ID to doing something like, say, forcing Wal-Mart to reveal how much aging perishable produce it has on it’s shelves each day, or color TV’s, or the number of shipping containers they have filled with cheap Asian goods. (From a national security standpoint that may well make more sense than animal ID.) Chances are that Wal-Mart wouldn’t care to share that info with consumers, because it removes mystery from their marketplace.

It could also be embarrassing if a biohazard like lead paint, dioxin, or melamine was found to be present.

Besides privacy, which is a big concern to freedom loving Americans everywhere, the problem with animal ID is the cost associated with it. RFID (Radio Frequency Identification) ear tags, or chips implanted under the skin of animals can be very time consuming to administer as well as expensive to buy, and no government entity yet has been able prove that the investment will be recouped through safety, or better prices at the farm gate.

Now some high ranking individuals say they suspect our chickens, cattle, horses, and hogs are vulnerable to a terror attack from Muslim extremists. That sounds a little like an excuse.

Frankly, I’m more afraid of PETA, but I think that if the Taliban came to Langdon, we’d notice right away.

On the other hand, with livestock markets in the hands of fewer and fewer buyers it seems like USDA still hasn’t noticed that concentration and power in the meat packing industry and big supermarket chains has had a negative effect on competition in the market place. That makes it harder for independent family farmers and ranchers to make a profit and stay on the land.

All the ear tags in the world won’t fix that.

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