When the first case of mad cow disease was discovered in a U.S. cattle herd almost six ago, it prompted calls for a national system that could prevent the spread of the incurable, brain-wasting illness and other diseases by tracking livestock from birth to slaughter.
A voluntary effort to track livestock
The U.S. Department of Agriculture soon rolled out a voluntary program designed to identify cattle, pigs and other livestock and the farms they come from. Since then, two more cases of mad cow disease have been reported in the United States. And today, with only about one in four cattle bearing an official ID tag, the USDA says it needs more participation to make the program work.
Cattlemen like Homer Buell use electronic ID tags for internal recordkeeping. The fourth-generation rancher runs Black Angus cows on his ranch in the Sandhills of north-central Nebraska.
But the U.S. Department of Agriculture wants more producers to register their livestock facilities and identify their animals with official ID tags. The agency just wrapped up a series of "listening sessions" in cities around the country. They were aimed at giving producers a chance to comment on the animal ID program and letting the USDA measure industry support for it.
Objections to what ranchers see as government intrusion
But anti-government sentiment runs deep here. And many speakers at the final session near Omaha view animal ID as government intrusion.
To applause from the crowd, livestock market manager Richard Schrunk told the officials, "No, we do not need animal ID!" He said producers already know how to keep track of their animals. Many maintain a computer database of their electronically tagged livestock, although that data is not collected now in a national directory.
Schrunk said that in the event of a disease outbreak, producers could share their records with animal health officials very quickly.
"We may not be able to trace them back in 24 hours, but I guarantee you, in 72 hours, we can trace those back."
Concern about rapid spread of disease
But that could be too long, say veterinarians like Ron DeHaven, who's with the American Veterinary Medical Association. Without a full tracking system in place, he worries about the risk of diseases like the highly contagious foot-and-mouth virus, which has plagued herds on several continents.
"If we were to have an introduction of that kind of disease, we could spread it into 10, 15 or 20 states within a matter of one or two days."
DeHaven argues that animal ID should be mandatory in the United States, as it is in places like Japan and the European Union.
Mandatory animal ID does have some support within the industry - including from groups like the National Pork Producers Council, which advocates federal funding for the program.
But many individual producers fear a mandate would harm their industry. Rancher Kris Harvey says she's afraid powerful meatpacking companies could gain access to electronic information about local ranchers' livestock herds and use that to justify paying producers less for their animals. Harvey says she and her husband hope someday to pass on their ranch near the South Dakota-Nebraska border to one of their five children, adding, "I hate to think that because of a government bureaucracy … we won't be able to offer our children that option, because it will no longer be profitable to raise cattle."
She notes, ruefully, that the cattle business is barely profitable now, and - since small producers like her family have less bargaining power - they would absorb much of the system's costs. For cattle, the USDA estimates the total cost at about $6 per animal. But the price would vary widely, depending on the number and type of animals produced.
A cure worse than the disease?
Back on his ranch, Homer Buell says he thinks forcing all producers to participate could be impractical.
"It's not easy when you have the number of cows we have in the United States, that we have in Nebraska, to set up an ID system that would work effectively. It'd be tough," he concludes.
What would be even tougher, animal health officials say, is a disease outbreak without a full tracking system in place. But if the solution requires mandatory animal ID, some producers fear the cure more than the disease.