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State vet pitches voluntary animal ID program

By Andy Kekacs, Copy Editor
Village Soup Citizen

November 20, 2006

Belfast, Maine - While livestock producers remain concerned about the potential cost and invasiveness of a farm animal identification program in Maine, the level of anger and fear appears to be declining.

In part, that’s because both the state and the federal government have backed away from plans to require every farm to identify and track every farm animal.

State and federal officials now say the effort will be completely voluntary and will focus on voluntary “premises registration,” creating a national database of places where livestock and poultry are raised. The effort is directed solely at farm animals; pets are not included.

In addition to scaling back plans for the program, Maine has embarked on an effort to better explain to farmers and the public why an improved tracking system is needed. Thursday night at the Hutchinson Center in Belfast, state veterinarian Don Hoenig met with about 13 producers from Waldo, Knox and Lincoln counties to discuss the program and get some feedback.

“We need a better system of animal identification in this country to help out in the event of an animal disease outbreak,” said Hoenig. “… It would help us to quickly find out when and where infected, or potentially exposed, animals have moved.”

Agriculture remains an important part of the Maine economy. The U.S. Department of Agriculture says the state has about 4,150 farms that raise livestock or poultry. Gross sales of animal products were estimated at $293 million in 2005.

In the event of a disease outbreak, others states would almost certainly embargo the import of animal products from Maine -- a severe financial blow to producers.

“We have to do a better job [of preparing for potential animal disease outbreaks],” said Hoenig. “Half of our milk, if not more, goes out of state … [and] Maine produces more brown eggs than any other state in the country.”

That said, Hoenig was sharply critical of federal efforts to propose and promote improvements to the nation’s animal identification system.

“The National Animal Identification System is a mess,” Hoenig said bluntly, criticizing what he said were “abrupt changes in federal policy” that were not well-communicated to the public or state agriculture officials.

Added Hoenig: “… They [federal officials] tried to bite off more than they could chew. They should have focused on cattle.”

USDA now says any program to register premises or identify animals will be voluntary, unless states decide to make it mandatory. Hoenig told the farmers assembled at the Hutchinson Center the state “needs to develop a program that works for Maine.”

Hoenig said state officials had made great strides in controlling and eliminating animal diseases. That led to one of the more provocative questions.

“Why do you need a better system [of animal identification] if the old system was effective?” asked Logan Perkins of Freedom.

“Maybe we can do it faster and do it better,” said Hoenig, who said a fast and effective response would limit the cost of an animal disease outbreak.

Hoenig laid part of the blame for what was perceived as the initially heavy-handed attitude of federal officials to the time in which the animal ID program was being developed: The aftermath of the terrorist bombings of Sept. 11 and the anthrax attacks in the U.S. mail.

“It was discovered that there were terrorist organizations that had researched biological warfare [with weapons that could cause epidemics among animals],” he said. “In that climate, people were thinking it would be a good idea if we could get a handle on it.”

Hoenig acknowledged it was not politically feasible to require mandatory registration of livestock producers. “If you don't have the cooperation of the people who own the animals, you're not going to get anywhere,” he said.

For some producers, like Marty Sarah Moore of Jackson, animal identification was already a fact of life.

“I raise alpacas,” said Moore. “We already have animal registration … people are very careful and strict about the movement of these animals.”

Others, such as Will Neils of Appleton, were skeptical of Hoenig’s conciliatory approach. “You’re coming out with ideas that are similar to the ones that were proposed before, but you're soft-pitching it,” he said.

Countered Hoenig: “The USDA [now] says the plan will be voluntary and market-driven. We don't have plans to do anything different here. Even though I think we ought to have [mandatory] premises registration, that’s not going to fly.”

For more information about Maine’s animal identification efforts, visit idmaine.info/index.html. Background on the National Animal Identification System can be found at http://animalid.aphis.usda.gov/nais/faq/faq.shtml#Q17


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