MONTPELIER -- The federal government wants to track the locations and movements of all domestic livestock. Plans call for adopting a nationwide system within the next two years as a defense against major animal epidemics such as avian influenza, BSE and foot-and-mouth disease. But even before the Vermont Agency of Agriculture has released draft rules on how the system would be implemented in Vermont, many local farmers and homesteaders are already expressing concern and outrage over "Big Brother" monitoring their flocks and herds.
The National Animal Identification System, or NAIS, was developed at the behest of major U.S. livestock producers in conjunction with the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Animal Plant Health Inspection Service. Although the federal plan hasn't been finalized yet, its ultimate goal is to enable animal health officials to rapidly identify an infected animal and trace it back to its source within 48 hours.
According to the NAIS draft strategic plan, which was presented to state lawmakers on March 22, the system has three main components. First, the federal government would require a registration number for all "premises" that board or house domestic livestock, including chickens, cows, pigs, goats, sheep, horses and other common farm animals. Registration would be mandatory regardless of whether the animals are raised for commercial use, personal consumption or as pets.
A second component would require that all animals be assigned identification numbers indicating where they're housed. Animals on small farms would receive individual numbers, while larger operations would be able to identify entire herds or flocks with a single number. Finally, animals would be tagged with electronic tracking devices for easy identification. Thus far, domestic pets such as cats, dogs, rabbits and birds are not included in NAIS.
Two weeks ago, Vermont Secretary of Agriculture Steve Kerr explained the system to the House Agriculture Committee and answered lawmakers' questions. Kerr said that Vermont plans to adopt a premises-identification system within the next year, with draft rules due out in the coming weeks.
Premises ID is essential for checking the spread of a major outbreak -- notably, avian flu, which could arrive on the West Coast as soon as August, Kerr explained. Since avian flu is being spread worldwide by wild birds and it's not practical to vaccine animals against it, the only effective tool for controlling its spread is to be able to rapidly identify -- and quarantine -- contaminated farms.
Kerr emphasized that the Agency of Agriculture is considering the premises ID program only, not the more intrusive electronic tagging and animal "traceback" components. Currently, Vermont farms and homesteads can register voluntarily with the Agency of Agriculture.
"Given the cost to the farm community and the political controversy that the pressure groups are going to apply, I don't think that individual animal ID is necessary enough for us to deal with the animal health risk," Kerr said. Comparing NAIS to the 911 emergency-response system, he emphasized that a premises ID database would contain only the names, addresses and locations of farms and homesteads, and the breeds kept at that location. No personal or financial data would be gathered.
"I would say to all of us who worry about intrusive government -- and I am one of those -- there are times in life when tradeoffs need to be made," Kerr said.
The National Institute for Animal Agriculture, the industry group that helped develop NAIS, asserts in its literature that "Support for a national identification system is now nearly universal." That doesn't appear to be the case in Vermont, however, where there's growing apprehension about how NAIS would impact small and moderately sized farms.
Fran Hurlburt of Wicken Fen Farms, a small, specialty egg operation in Topsham, first learned about NAIS in a poultry magazine. Despite Agency of Agriculture assurances, she believes Vermonters will eventually be forced to register their animals, too. She says there's no way they'll sport computer chips.
"That really creeps me out because nobody has any business looking into my barn," she says. "To me, it's like a church."
Hurlburt asserts that NAIS benefits big livestock producers over small farmers. "A cattle rancher in Texas, for example, who has a thousand head can register all his animals under one number," she says, "but my dairy farmer up the road who's got 16 girls milking in his barn has to register them individually."
Paul Horton, a vegetable grower in Benson who also raises a few chicken and pigs each year, says the more he learns about NAIS, the less he likes it. "This isn't a farmers' issue. This is a personal freedom issue," Horton says. "Maybe next time we'll all be required to register our radios and televisions." Horton says he will give up his animals before he participates. And that, he contends, is exactly what the large livestock producers want.
Horton's sentiments seemed to be shared by other farmers statewide, according to Amy Shollenberger, policy director for the farm advocacy group, Rural Vermont. Libertarians oppose it on civil-liberties grounds. Progressives express fears about how NAIS benefits factory farming and compromises local family farms and food security. Religious groups such as the Mennonites oppose livestock branding and tagging on animal-cruelty grounds. Shollenberger says that many also fear that NAIS will enable the government to quarantine farms and slaughter animals at will in the event of an epidemic.
Shollenberger says her office is receiving between two and 20 calls per day on this issue.
According to Shollenberger, farmers are concerned that NAIS is being pushed to help large livestock producers open up foreign markets in Europe and Asia, where consumers want more assurances about the safety of American-bred animals.
Hurlburt, who spoke about her opposition to NAIS on WDEV's "The Mark Johnson Show" on March 7, says she expected her more conservative neighbors to support the system. "It wasn't that way at all," she says. "A lot of them said, 'You send those government people to count my cows and I'm gonna meet them at the front of the farm with a shotgun."