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USDA steps up efforts to track livestock

Cows may soon have ID similar to Social Security number

By Marsha Walton

The U.S.  government wants all cattle to have individual identification numbers.
The U.S. government wants all cattle to have individual identification numbers.
Department of Agriculture
Animal Science
Livestock Farming

CHICAGO, Illinois (CNN) -- Every cow in the United States may someday have a unique ID number.

"We want to allocate an individual identification, just like you and I have Social Security numbers," said Bill Hawks, an undersecretary of marketing and regulatory programs at the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

After a Holstein cow tested positive for mad cow disease, or bovine spongiform encephalopathy known as BSE, in Washington last year, the federal government stepped up efforts to more efficiently track animal diseases.

The presence of BSE in Washington and the outbreak of foot and mouth disease in the United Kingdom in 2001 alerted the Department of Agriculture that action was needed.

"We need to be able to identify animals, identify them quickly to control diseases," said Hawks.

Although the case of mad cow disease in Washington was contained, about 50 countries stopped importing U.S. beef following the discovery. The human variant of mad cow, known as Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, has claimed more than 140 lives in Britain since 1996.

Only two countries, Mexico and Canada, have since resumed imports.

The USDA recently launched the first phase of its National Animal Identification System with $18.8 million in funding. The long-term goal of the project is to be able to identify farms where a specific animal lived within 48 hours of a possible outbreak.

Nearly 500 scientists, ranchers, farmers, and representatives of the cattle and sheep industry met in Chicago to discuss the identification system.

"The money that's at stake ... if something happens will outweigh many, many times the cost of putting a system together," said Dr. Robert Fourdraine, chief operating officer of the Wisconsin Livestock Identification Consortium. "I really feel what we're working on is to protect the animal health, however I see the long-term rewards to our producers as well."

Fourdraine said the same database that keeps track of animals' geographic movements can also keep information on health, vaccinations, and lineage.

The USDA says it will be "technology neutral" about the tracking system. Farmers can use any of a variety of tracking methods -- from physical tags to biometrics and DNA tracking -- as long as it provides critical data about animals' movements.

Tracking by radio tags

RFID, or radio frequency identification, is now leading the herd among tracking technologies. These radio ID tags are now widely used in everything from tracking merchandise at Wal-Mart to tracking children at an amusement park in Denmark.

Several countries already have mandatory tracking systems. Australia's National Livestock Identification, which uses RFID tags, has reported virtually no malfunctions since it began in January.

"If there was a disease outbreak, within seconds we can trace the animal, the property it came from, and every movement the animal has made," said Keith Wright, director of Boontech. "It means the region can be isolated, while the rest of the country can keep trading."

Other farmers and ranchers are using retinal scans to track animal movements.

"You just bring the camera up to the animal's eye, a controller analyzes and captures a picture, which is a unique identifier," said Daniel Baker of Optibrand, Limited. A retinal scan is like a fingerprint, he said, and cannot get lost or damaged like a tag can.

From calf to counter

While RFID and eye scans work until the animal is slaughtered, DNA analysis can be tracked all the way to the grocery store, said Dr. Brendan Fox of Pyxis Genomics.

"The traceability of live animals is important, but we want to go beyond live animals, we want to go to the meat because that's where the consumer meets the system," said Fox.

At some supermarkets in Japan, for example, a shopper can take a package of meat to a scanner and trace the product back to the farm the cow or pig came from. Fox says this could help shoppers who are looking for meat without hormones, or meat that is deemed "organic."

Some at the conference are concerned that the USDA's "technology neutral" stance may hinder animal tracking that involves livestock that has crossed state, or even country boundaries. Many animals move a half dozen or more times between birth and the slaughterhouse.

"If it gets to a situation where one state uses retinal scans and we're using RFID technology, we won't be able to access that information," said Mike Sampson of the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture. "In the worst case scenario we could well be back to a manual entry situation," he said.

Notoriously independent ranchers and farmers have security concerns as well. The tags contains medical history, lineage, and price which livestock owners are wary about releasing.

"We think it's very important to protect that data, and we will not go to a mandatory system until we find a way to protect that data," said the USDA's Hawks.

The U.S. government's initial focus is on cattle because mad cow disease can be passed on and can be fatal to humans.

But the U.S. Animal Identification Plan eventually will include many other species, from bison and sheep to goats, llamas, alpacas, poultry, even 11 species of fish.

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