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updated 4/19/2004 7:57:31 PM ET 2004-04-19T23:57:31

The U.S. government's national system for animal identification will initially be voluntary and the government may pay about one-third the estimated $550 million cost to set it up, an Agriculture Department official said on Monday. The details offer the first outline of the Bush administration's financial commitment to the program.

USDA chief economist Keith Collins also said he believed USDA was close to gaining White House approval to dip into emergency funding so it can launch the nationwide ID plan this year.

In the wake of the discovery of the first U.S. case of mad cow disease, Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman announced four months ago that implementation of a nationwide animal identification plan would be speeded up. The goal would be to identify within 48 hours the herdmates of suspect animals when there is a disease outbreak.

USDA wants to begin issuing ID numbers later this year to farms, ranches, feed lots, packing plant and other "premises" where animals congregate. It might even be able to begin issuing ID numbers to individual animals or groups of animals by the end of the year, Collins told the North American Agricultural Journalists.

"We would expect to be a partner," he said, in bearing the cost of the program, along with state governments and the livestock industry. One group involved in developing an animal ID plan estimates the five-year cost at $550 million.

The Bush administration has requested $33 million for animal ID work in fiscal 2005, beginning Oct. 1. If $33 million is the benchmark, Collins said, the federal government might pay $165 million over five years, or one-third of the cost.

Not mandatory
Animal ID work was expected to begin with cattle, because of concern about preventing the spread of mad cow disease, as well as other major food animals such as hogs, sheep and poultry.

There are 95 million head of cattle in the United States on around a million farms, ranches and feedlots. About 35 million are slaughtered annually at roughly 3,000 packing plants.

Participation in the ID program will be voluntary, at least in the initial period. Given the size of the cattle industry, "It would have been hopeless to mandate something out of the box," Collins said.

USDA expects its role to be an issuer of numbers and a storehouse for animal data. State agencies and private groups would assign the numbers to producers and relay the data to USDA.

Collins said USDA has told lawmakers that legislation would be needed to assure confidentiality of animal ID data if compliance is mandatory.

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