USDA seeks cash for cow tracking

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Creation of a national livestock identification program to help guarantee food safety is by no means ensured until money can be found to pay for it, Agriculture Department officials said today.

"We are still evaluating potential sources of funding," Dr. Ronald DeHaven, the department's chief veterinarian, said Tuesday at a briefing on the nation's first case of mad cow disease.

Still in the planning stage, the identification and tracking system most likely would use radio-frequency ID chips that are beginning to replace bar codes for identifying inventory items in many industries. Cows can be tracked from birth to slaughter using chips in ear tags, DeHaven said. Smaller animals such as chickens and pigs "that largely move in groups or lots," he said, might be identified by a unique lot ID number.

State agriculture departments or other designated authorities would administer databases that can pinpoint all locations where livestock animals are produced and processed. Planners had hoped to have a national livestock-tracking infrastructure completed by July 2006.

In a preliminary report, the U.S. Animal Health Association – an organization of state and federal agencies, universities and industry groups that has urged USDA to develop a livestock-tracking program – recommends a public/private partnership to pay for the project's substantial cost.

USDA and animal-health association officials have estimated livestock tracking will cost $71 million in the first year and $122 million annually when fully operational.

The program would require states, the federal government and animal producers to set up a nationwide data collection system using unique locator numbers, statewide databases and a federal data repository that food-safety officials could use to trace diseased animals within 48 hours.

In the absence of a livestock-tracking system, department officials announced they would take extraordinary measures this week to assure consumers of the safety of the nation's food supply. DeHaven said the department, as a precautionary measure, has ordered the slaughter of 450 calves in a Washington state herd where, in December, a Holstein cow was found to be infected with mad cow disease, also known as bovine spongiform encephalopathy.

Animal health authorities have been unable to determine which one of the 450 calves in the herd was born to the infected cow. Although authorities suspect contaminated feed caused the infection, they want to guard against any possibility that the infected cow transmitted the disease to her calf. Slaughtering the calves will remove them from the nation's food supply.

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