JEFFERSON CITY — Hundreds of Midwestern farmers called Tuesday for the federal government to scrap a national livestock identification system, saying it would fail to make food safer and intrude on private businesses.
"You guys don't know what the heck you're doing," David Hannes, a farmer from Mountain Grove near the Arkansas border, told U.S. Department of Agriculture employees at a town hall meeting.
The USDA started the National Animal Identification System in 2004 to ensure the safety of the nation's meat by helping the Agriculture Department track down livestock during disease outbreaks. Animals are tagged, and information about them and the farms where they live are kept in a searchable database.
USDA veterinarian David Hopson said the tracking system would help officials respond to disease outbreaks more quickly because they would know where livestock are and have been. The system also will help open foreign markets to American meat products faster, he said.
"We need a good system in place to keep our U.S. livestock healthy," Hopson said.
Individual states decide whether to participate in the animal tracking program and whether to make farmers' participation voluntary.
A 2008 Missouri law bars the state Department of Agriculture from participating in a mandatory livestock tracking program without the explicit approval of the legislature. Michigan became the first state in 2007 to make parts of the program mandatory by requiring radio frequency identification ear tags to be attached to cattle and dairy cows.
Tuesday's rancorous town hall meeting at a hotel in Jefferson City was sponsored by the federal Agriculture Department and drew producers from Arkansas, Missouri, Illinois, Kansas and Wisconsin.
Several dozen protesters, including some farmers, stood outside the hotel, while inside, the audience greeted critics with loud cheers, standing ovations and shouts of approval.
The tracking system is "irrelevant and unnecessary," said Rhonda Perry, program director of the Missouri Rural Crisis Center, which helped sponsor the protests. It will not make the nation's meat supply safer because the problems have been at the processing facilities, said Perry, who farms near Armstrong in mid-Missouri.
Others sharply criticized the USDA's competency and honesty while USDA employees sat less than 10 feet away. Numerous speakers criticized government regulations that they said make it harder for American farmers to stay in business.
Steve Willard, president of the Missouri Cattlemen's Association, said no issue has triggered as much controversy as the livestock tracking system and implementing it could be a "costly mistake" given the strong opposition.
The "country was built on a free enterprise system and that should not be interrupted," Willard said.
Of the 55 people who spoke in nearly four hours, only one pork producer endorsed the tracking system.
Brent Sandidge, who lives in rural Saline County about halfway between Kansas City and Jefferson City, noted that pork sales plummeted during the recent swine flu outbreak, even though pigs weren't spreading the disease. He warned other livestock producers that one infection that is not quickly contained could ruin their industries.
"I watched swine flu destroy our markets," Sandidge said before hecklers interrupted him and he stormed out of the hotel.