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Livestock ID program funding slashed

LACK OF PROGRESS:System has registered barely a third of the expected farms, spent $142m since 2004

By Marc Heller | Watertown Daily Times

WASHINGTON — A program to track livestock nationwide will be on life support until the U.S. Department of Agriculture improves its performance.

Congress was on the verge Wednesday of approving just $5.3 million for the National Animal Identification System, which has spent $142 million since 2004 but registered barely a third of ranches, farms and other sites that would be expected to participate.

A House-Senate conference committee working on a final spending bill for agriculture programs slashed funding for animal identification and threatened to cut off funding next year if the USDA does not make progress. The House passed the legislation Wednesday and the Senate was expected to do so later.

The system is supposed to help stem the spread of animal diseases that can contaminate human food supplies and was spurred by appearances of mad cow disease and other serious ailments in cattle.

In theory, experts will have a detailed history of each animal, including which farms it lived on and where it was slaughtered. It is generally supported by farm groups, but they are split on whether the system should become mandatory or remain voluntary as directed so far by Congress. The dairy industry is watching developments closely. The National Milk Producers Federation, representing farmer-owned bargaining cooperatives, has called for a mandatory system to bolster public confidence in food safety.

After milk, meat is the second-biggest source of farm income for dairy farmers, agriculture experts say. Culled dairy cows typically become hamburger for fast-food chains, for instance.

Whether shrinking funds will hinder the USDA's efforts or help focus them remains to be seen.

"It's hard to make progress if the funding level is declining, but the real issue is whether a voluntary system, regardless of funding, can get the job done," said Christopher Galen, a spokesman for the NMPF. "The progress, or lack thereof, of the voluntary NAIS system to date demonstrates the necessity of a mandatory system."

To the program's critics, the system lacks the teeth to attract enough participation and has been poorly implemented by the USDA. Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., led a successful effort in the House to cut off funding, arguing that Congress should approve no more funds until the USDA shows how it will improve the program's implementation. The conference committee rejected that approach but also slashed the $16.4 million initially approved by the Senate.

Ms. DeLaura has said the system ought to be mandatory, an argument that has gained momentum in Congress as the program languishes.

Roughly 37 percent of the premises that could sign up for the program have done so, the congressional committee reported.

On the other side is New York Farm Bureau, which has urged a voluntary program and warns that compelling farmers to participate would be costly for small farms. The National Cattlemen's Beef Association takes the same stand, warning that the system cannot prevent the spread of disease and yet would cost about $228 million a year to implement if mandatory.

A spokeswoman for the National Cattlemen's Beef Association, Bethany Shively, acknowledged that the funding for next year is small but said it will be directed toward registering premises, which has been the NAIS's main weakness.

The NCBA encourages its members to participate but Ms. Shively could not say what percentage of participation the organization believes would make for an effective program.

"We don't measure success numerically," Ms. Shively said. The system is working, she said, if buyers and sellers of beef — including foreign buyers who need to verify sources —are "getting what they need."

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