Animal tracking to start

Agriculture Department officials said today they have $18.8 million with which to begin work on a computerized animal identification system. The $18.8 million, however, is a fraction of the system's projected cost of $550 million during five years.

"We're prepared to roll up our sleeves and get this thing implemented," said Bill Hawks, undersecretary for marketing and regulatory programs at USDA.

An important feature of the system will be a database that would permit animal health officials to trace the origin and movements of a diseased animal within 48 hours of discovering it.

Hawks said the foundation of the system will be a national database. States and producer associations that already collect data from producers and marketers will feed data relevant to tracking animal health into the national database on a daily or weekly basis.

Hawks said the Commodity Credit Corp. provided the start-up money, which officials will use to evaluate existing animal identification systems and to set up a process for issuing premises ID numbers. The numbers will identify the farms where animals come from and the feedlots and slaughterhouses where they end up.

The start-up could occur fairly rapidly once USDA officials identify an existing system that can be scaled up to a national level, Hawks said.

USDA officials who had been planning an animal identification system for several years agreed to accelerate their planning schedule after December when a veterinarian discovered a case of mad cow disease in the United States.

Initially, the system will track cattle, but the same system could later be used to track sheep, hogs and other animals, officials said. The system will be voluntary, Hawks said, and producers will be expected to contribute money to pay for the system.

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