USDA chief stresses animal tracking

Agriculture Department Secretary Ann Veneman told members of the House Agriculture Committee this week that developing infrastructure standards for a nationwide animal identification system has become a top priority of the USDA's chief information officer.

"Our goal is to achieve a uniform, consistent and efficient national system," Veneman said at the hearing, which was also audiocast on the Web.

But although USDA officials say they are working on an animal tracking program, some members of Congress say those efforts may not produce a national identification system quickly enough.

USDA and industry officials, who have been working together for 18 months, have made significant progress on defining national standards for the system, and because of concerns about mad cow disease, their work has been expedited, Veneman told the committee. But one congressman said that he was not satisfied with USDA's approach and added that a tracking system is needed now.

Rep. Collin Peterson (D-Minn.) said he favored appropriating money for an animal identification and tracking system that is already being used in parts of the livestock industry. "I don't know why we're reinventing the wheel," Peterson said. "I think we need to do this sooner rather than later."

Peterson said he preferred to take an existing tracking system, National Farm Animal Identification and Records, also known as FAIR, and make it mandatory. That particular project received $1.8 million from Congress in 1998, he said. The FAIR system "is now in 43 states, on 7,500 farms and [tracks] one million cattle."

But some opponents say that it would be a mistake to adopt FAIR as a nationwide system.

FAIR is a good system but tailored specifically for the dairy industry, said Scott Stuart, cochairman of the communication subcommittee for the government and industry group developing the USDA system. Stuart, who was not present at this week's congressional hearing, said in an interview that the group plans a national system that can track most species of domestic food animals, including chickens, pigs, sheep and even emus. The organization brings together federal and state animal health officials with livestock and other industry officials, including animal producers, marketers and processors.

Knowing how many interests are likely to be affected by such a system, Veneman said, the USDA favors a flexible tracking system based on technical architecture that is open, so commercial systems based on those standards would be compatible.

"I understand the need to get this done quickly," Veneman said. "I also want to make sure that we do it right."

Increasingly, food retailers such as McDonald's are expressing strong interest in animal tracking, she said. "I want to make sure as we develop the animal identification system that, if there are going to be requirements from the ultimate user of the product, we do not have multiple systems imposed upon the producer."

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