ANNAPOLIS – When avian flu struck the Eastern Shore early this year, poultry farmer Brent Kenney was stuck in the middle of it all as nearby farmers eradicated flocks – but the flu never hit his business.
“We were rather lucky,” said the Wicomico County farmer.
Money Maryland received this week may lessen Kenney’s and other farmers’ reliance on luck during future outbreaks. The $105,000 grant will help the state start logging all farms and animals into a national identification system intended to help root out a disease source quickly.
“After the (avian influenza) scare we had last year,” said Kenney, “it’ll just be a better tracking system.”
Maryland will share the United States Department of Agriculture grant with Delaware and will use it to identify farms. Animal identification will come later.
“It coincides nicely with some more short-term interest we have on getting a better handle on where our poultry population is kept,” said Patrick McMillan, Maryland Agriculture assistant secretary for marketing.
This system is voluntary, he said, but eventually market factors should drive participation.
“We want to have the best possible system in the world” to monitor diseases, he said. “In order to do that, you’ve got to know where the animals are and have been.”
Even before avian flu, the country’s first case of mad cow disease in Washington state a year ago pushed the USDA to implement the ID system. The original schedule called for all premises to be logged by mid-2004 and all animals between mid-2005 and mid-2006.
While other states’ programs are underway, Maryland has been waiting for federal funding to begin the tracking.
“It should benefit us,” said Billy Boniface, a horse farmer in Harford County, of the national ID system. “It’ll be a lot easier to track things if an outbreak of a disease occurs.”
The form of identification for the national system will vary from species to species. Long before mad cow disease, farmers used hot-iron branding and later tags, tattoos and electronic chips. But much of that information was for personal inventories, not stored nationally and therefore of little use when tracking a disease between states.
“That ID is probably unique within the herd,” said Neil Hammerschmidt, animal identification coordinator for the USDA, “but it’s of no value, if you will, beyond the farm gate.”
Farmers are concerned about the cost, privacy and compatibility with existing identification systems, said McMillan, who added that the state will likely seek more federal dollars in the future.
“It’s going to be a pain, it’s going to be a lot of additional cost,” said Keith Menchey, MDA’s assistant secretary for policy development, “but it’s going to be something we’re really going to have to do.”
The industry has estimated the national system could cost $100 million annually. The USDA has not determined the expense, but requested $33 million for fiscal 2005.
The cost, said Hammerschmidt, will likely be shared by states and farmers.
“For the most part, farmers believe there are a lot of good reasons for an animal ID program,” said Valerie Connelly, director of government relations for the Maryland Farm Bureau.
“If there is an E. coli outbreak and we need to track the source . . . if there is a bio-terrorism issue, it is to everybody’s benefit to figure out where that occurred.”