The USDA's Mark of the Beast 

Which vision is more appalling: Government workers peering into your chicken coop, or cow carcasses burning along the hedgerows?

Agriculture is more like science fiction every day. Eggheads are splicing fish genes into tomatoes. A bird virus may some day kill more people than the 1918 flu epidemic. And if you eat the wrong cow, a string of protein multiplies in your brain until you go partially blind, succumb to dementia, and flail involuntarily before dying.

Now, the federal government wants to get in on the act. When a cow in Washington state was diagnosed with mad cow disease in 2003, and ranchers couldn't determine where the disease broke out, Japan banned all American beef exports, crippling the cattle industry. In response, Secretary of Agriculture Ann Veneman fast-tracked a plan known as the National Animal Identification System. Officials intend to identify and track every single animal used for agricultural or commercial purposes. Every fish raised for human consumption. Every chicken, duck, and turkey. Every cow, pig, goat, horse, sheep, deer, elk, llama, and alpaca. All ten billion of them.

The goal is to be able to track and isolate within 48 hours the outbreak of diseases such as avian flu, mad cow, and exotic Newcastle. The program is being presented as a matter of more-effective animal husbandry, but with a bird flu epidemic possible, much more is at stake. In any case, small farmers are beginning to wonder whether the family farm is no longer possible. "It comes down to, at the most fundamental level, a violation of our constitutional rights and privacy," says Walter Jeffries, a farmer who has emerged as the plan's leading critic.

Jeffries raises pigs and harvests maple sugar in a farm in Vermont. He first heard about the plan in 2004, and concluded that the federal government was about to wipe out his right to be left alone. Jeffries says he will be forced to register every single animal that might come into contact with other animals outside his land. He will have to file a report with the government every time one of his animals dies. "There's no need for the government to know what livestock we have," he says. "We shouldn't have to report to the government when we slaughter our animals."

In addition, Jeffries claims, farmers and ranchers will bear most of the cost of registering and tracking their animals. Big cattle ranchers and factory farms will be able to bear this burden, but smaller free-range chicken and pig farmers will be saddled with disproportionate costs and may go out of business. Under the proposed rules, big livestock producers will be able to assign a single lot number to a flock of thousands of chickens, since they are isolated from other animals in factory pens. But small producers who let their animals commingle with ones from other farms will have to assign an individual number and file paperwork for every animal. "The farmers are going to spend a lot of money doing this system," he says, "and they're going to have to pass that along to you."

But Jeffries is raising a lot of fuss about a program that is at least three years from being implemented. According to Doré Mobley, a spokeswoman for the Department of Agriculture, the plan is currently being organized on a strictly voluntary basis, although identification could become mandatory if producers don't play ball. There are three stages: premises registration, in which ranchers notify the government that they raise animals; animal identification, in which ranchers identify each animal or livestock lot; and tracking, which would record the shipment of animals around the country. If backyard farmers only keep a few pigs they slaughter themselves, she adds, they would have to register only their property, nothing more. "Much of the program remains to be finalized," Mobley says. "So there really is no accurate estimate of what the cost will be. ... For small producers, based on their type of operation, they may be subject to only one part of the program."

Many local ranchers seem comfortable with the new system; after all, they already keep an inventory of their livestock. Darrel Sweet, who owns about 275 head of beef cattle near the Altamont Pass, says it might not be so bad once the government works out the complicated logistics. But the cost to industry will be steep. "In the United States, we have about 100 million head of cattle," he says. "In the meat processing business, we process about 100,000 head of cattle a day, we harvest about 35 million a year. ... Let's say it costs three dollars apiece to put an ear tag in an animal's ear. That's three hundred million dollars."

Dennis Stiffler, who is responsible for quality control at Petaluma Poultry, one of the country's largest producers of free-range chicken, supports such a tracking program and even says it's critical to protecting us from bioterrorism. A tracking program would enable the government to isolate and slaughter infected animals quickly, he adds.

Natural outbreaks of disease are a real enough threat, as farmers in England and Asia know all too well. But at the risk of looking foolish when the Great al-Qaeda Chicken Epidemic kills us all, the chances of someone sneaking weaponized bird flu into Foster Farms are fairly remote. Nonetheless, the federal government is about to spend millions of dollars and inconvenience millions of people just in case. This is exactly the sort of thinking that the Bush administration, and alarmists like Richard Clarke, have saddled us with in the years since 9/11. Even as shipping containers float uninspected through our seaports, federal officials are hard at work imagining the most unlikely terrorist contingencies and insisting we upend our lives preparing for them. In any case, the whole plan seems certain to die at the first candidates' meeting of the 2008 Iowa caucus.

When you get down to it, there's something profoundly un-American about Washington bureaucrats auditing how many goats you've got in your backyard. But that's agriculture in the 21st century. On one hand, filing a report with the government whenever your ducks get past the chicken wire sounds absurd. On the other hand, foot-and-mouth disease, mad cow disease, and avian flu have forced governments in Europe and Asia to massacre millions of farm animals. Which is more appalling, the prospect of government workers peering into your chicken coop, or cow carcasses burning along the hedgerows of England?

Of course, whenever you talk about registering with the government, some people are sure to open up their Bibles. Department of Agriculture spokesman Jim Rogers says his office has been flooded with calls from people screaming that this is the onset of the end times predicted in the Book of Revelation. Coast to Coast, a nationally syndicated radio show that usually traffics in UFO sightings, has dedicated air time to conspiracies around the new program. Roy Moore, the disgraced Alabama judge who is trying to build a Southern evangelical political machine, cited the program as the latest attempt by "atheist socialists" to destroy the American way of life.

Sure, he's bonkers. But think about it: The federal government wants to know where all ten billion commercially raised animals are, at every moment in their lives. It's doing this so we don't have to stack the dead in the streets like cordwood. Who's to say the end times aren't here after all?

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