Animal ID cost pegged at $545M

The Agriculture Department is moving to have the initial phase of a national animal-identification program in place by late fall, but questions about the cost and the confidentiality of information collected for the program remain sticking points.

The cost to create a comprehensive national animal-ID system covering all livestock is now estimated to be $545 million during a six-year period, with an additional $70 million to $122 million a year needed to maintain such a system, according to testimony given last week before a Senate Agriculture subcommittee.

Most of the annual maintenance expenses would be for animal-identification tags, estimated to cost $2 per tag if radio-frequency ID tags are used. The cattle herd in the United States is about 100 million animals.

Although financing for the system has still not been worked out and other uncertainties remain, the government must create a national animal-tracking system as soon as possible, said Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.), a member of the Senate Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry Committee's Marketing, Inspection and Product Promotion Subcommittee. "Our producers and ranchers languish under closed export markets," Nelson said at a March 4 hearing.

Export markets closed following the discovery last December of the first case of mad cow disease in the United States, and many producers hope that a national animal-tracking system will restore confidence in the U.S. livestock industry.

President Bush's fiscal 2005 budget request contains $33 million for creating system on an accelerated schedule, far less than the estimate developed by a government and industry group that has been working for nearly two years on a national plan to trace the origins of a diseased animal within 48 hours of discovery.

Because the fiscal 2004 budget contains no money for the new system, USDA officials are considering alternative methods of paying for it, including emergency financing from the Commodity Credit Corp., USDA undersecretary Bill Hawks testified at the hearing. Most likely a combination of federal, state and livestock industry financing will be needed to pay for the system, he said.

In addition, protecting the confidentiality of information about livestock producers' operations is essential to ensure maximum participation in the program, Hawks said. "It is our intent for this information to be available only for various animal health officials, whether it's state officials or federal animal health officials, to carry on their disease control work."

Hawks said he preferred to make participation in the data-collection system voluntary if producers, marketers and slaughterhouse operators would participate voluntarily.

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