Vilsack supports livestock tracking to help trade
By Gregory A. Hall
Article from The Courier-Journal
HARRODSBURG, Ky. -- U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack told a group of Kentucky farmers yesterday that he supports a controversial livestock tracking system that some producers fear will be made mandatory.
Vilsack defended the goal of the program, to help control outbreaks of animal illnesses like mad cow disease, as a way to protect exports.
While he stopped short of saying it needs to be mandatory -- noting opinions among various producers are widespread -- he said nothing to suggest it's going away.
If the program is dropped because a lack of participation leads to less funding, it will be more difficult to convince trading partners that U.S. beef is safe, Vilsack said.
Vilsack made the comments during a rural community forum at Anderson Circle Farm in Harrodsburg, the fourth forum of its kind for the new secretary since President Barack Obama's January inauguration.
Vilsack also took questions on a variety of agricultural concerns and highlighted money headed to Kentucky from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009.
Later in Louisville, Vilsack visited Dare to Care Foodbank to highlight $1.6 million in USDA-purchased food that will come to Kentucky through the economic stimulus effort.
Dare to Care, which distributes food to 8 counties in Kentucky and 5 counties in Indiana, has experienced a 30 percent increase in new people requesting emergency food, according to Davod Schlosser, director of operations.
Vilsack said that the stimulus is a "double benefit," helping struggling farmers and hungry citizens.The department also is conducting separate forums on the identification system, one of which was in Louisville last week.
Yesterday, Dave Maples, executive vice president of the Kentucky Cattle Association, raised the National Animal Identification Ssystem question during the forum.
The system uses site registrations, animal identification through methods like individual ear tags or group identification, and tracks the animals through databases.
Concerns include costly implementation; confidentiality of the information; and what technological systems will be allowed or required. The program has hung in limbo since being unveiled about five years ago because of its voluntary involvement.
Groups like the Community Farm Alliance in Frankfort, Ky., argue that NAIS will favor larger, corporation farms to the ruin of family-scale farms. No one from the group raised concerns yesterday, but they did at an NAIS listening session in Louisville last week.
Vilsack told reporters after yesterday's session in a news conference that the financial burden for poultry and hogs is less of a burden than for cattle and any changes made in the program going forward should take that into account.
Maples said Vilsack's answer was as he expected.
The impacts could be significant for Kentucky, which is the largest cattle state east of the Mississippi River.
Maples said he isn't so worried that NAIS will put farmers out of business altogether, but is most concerned about the confidentiality and technological aspects that could make it more cumbersome to sell cattle.
But he declined to speculate about any specifics of how the program should be changed.
"I think for a functioning system to do what it needs to do to preserve the market and to have confidence in the market, you need 70 to 80 percent participation," Vilsack said. "So we have a ways to go and I don't know whether that's a one-year deal or a four-year deal."
About 35 percent of livestock farms and other sites take part in the program, according to testimony at a USDA forum in Washington on NAIS in April.
Reporter Jaz Gray contributed to this story. Reporter Gregory A. Hall can be reached at (502) 582-4087.