Support swells for livestock ID system

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With the nation's first mad cow disease scare still fresh in people's minds, government and industry officials say they might reach a consensus on a computerized national livestock identification program — and fairly quickly find money to pay for it.

Agriculture Department Secretary Ann Veneman recently signaled a strong commitment to finish developing the program, which the department's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service has been developing for the past 18 months.

Despite some resistance within the livestock industry, cattlemen, dairy farmers and others have long seen the need for such a program. The USDA program would eventually track livestock, poultry and other food animals.

The USDA's plan is similar to Canada's mandatory system, under which every animal is tagged before it leaves the farm or ranch where it was born. U.S. animal health officials say that a system is needed here that lets officials act quickly — within 48 hours — to trace the origins and movements of a diseased animal. No such capacity exists today. Some of that livestock information is computerized; some of it is kept in shoeboxes.

Even before mad cow disease, other animal disease scares had convinced many government officials and industry groups that a computerized system for animal tracking was needed. "The foot-and-mouth disease outbreak in the United Kingdom made us all realize real fast that we needed to be able to trace animals very quickly because of the speed with which that disease moved," said Donna Gilson, a spokeswoman for the Wisconsin Agriculture Department.

Different livestock numbering systems have grown up in the past around specific animal diseases such as brucellosis, scrapie and tuberculosis. Some farms and ranches use several numbering systems at once, and those systems would have to be merged into a single system of unique ID numbers, USDA officials say. The department has proposed using the same numbering system that Canada uses.

Because of widespread agreement that a national system is needed, many groups are more optimistic that one can be created despite the technical difficulties, the concerns of producers and the cost. But producers must first find a way to overcome the shortcomings of the data entry technology that has been proposed for the system. That technology, which uses radio frequency transponders, has practical

limitations.

"You get a hundred animals moving down a corral, individually reading each tag with radio frequency is not like reading a bar code off a package by the [parcel] delivery guy," said Neil Hammerschmidt, animal identification coordinator for the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service.

Despite its limitations, the use of radio technology is more efficient than reading numbers on a metal ear tag and copying those numbers manually into an electronic database, Hammerschmidt said. Canada plans to introduce radio frequency identification technology into its mandatory identification system early this year, he said.

Resistance to a national tracking program from some livestock producers has been an obstacle in the past, but that resistance has weakened. Producers are worried that more incidents like the mad cow scare could further harm the industry.

Before the mad cow incident, animal producers had "questions about sharing of data and who would have access to it," said Bob Ehart, animal and plant health safeguarding coordinator for the National Association of State Departments of Agriculture. "Those are probably still issues that need to be resolved. But they are not ones that will stand in the way of developing a program that can be implemented, and I think probably fairly soon."

In addition to overcoming producers' resistance, agriculture and industry officials say they still must find a way to pay for the system. In a preliminary report, the U.S. Animal Health Association recommended a public/private partnership to pay for the project's substantial cost. The association's members are state and federal agencies, universities and industry groups.

Cost remains a concern for cattle producers, said Michele Peterson, speaking for the National Cattlemen's Beef Association, a trade group. "The largest issue would be that our cattle producers remain profitable through the implementation of such a program."

One financing possibility is a direct appropriation from Congress. "No one has mentioned a dollar value, but the latest thing that we've seen coming out of USDA is that there will be funding available," Ehart said.

Creation of a national livestock identification program is by no means ensured until money can be found to pay for it. But livestock producers, states and consumer groups have a vested interest in establishing such a program. Most states recognize the need for a national program. Beginning this month, Wisconsin, for example, is looking for volunteers among dairy producers in the state to test its new animal identification system, which is based on the Canadian model. State officials are hoping the Wisconsin system will help accelerate adoption of a national system along lines that would satisfy both state and national needs.

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Mad cow management

A national animal-tracking system based on radio frequency identification, or RFID, technology might work like this:

1. A newborn calf gets tagged in the ear with an RFID chip encoded with an ID number, which specifies where it was born.

2. The animal goes to market, where its chip is read and the data entered into the national database.

3. The animal goes to a slaughterhouse where, again, its RFID chip is read and that data is automatically entered into a national database.

4. If disease is found, the laboratory contacts animal health and food safety authorities, who can trace the origins of the animal back to its original farm.

Source: Wisconsin Livestock Identification Consortium

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