Industry and gov’t call for U.S.-wide cattle ID system

The discovery of a single cow with bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) in a Washington state dairy herd in late December illustrates the need for a national livestock identification system to trace infected cattle in the U.S., government and beef industry officials say. But plans to deploy such a system are still hobbled by a lack of funding.

A consortium of livestock producers and processors as well as the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) in September developed the U.S. Animal Identification Plan (USAIP), which called for identifying all 30 million cattle in the U.S. with a radio frequency identification (RFID) tag by July 2005. But, according to Robert Fourdraine, chief operating officer at the Wisconsin Livestock Identification Consortium, who also served as IT director for the USAIP, funding “is the US$600 million question.” That sum is the estimated cost to deploy an electronic tracking system throughout the U.S. livestock industry, covering cattle as well as other animals such as pigs and sheep.

Fourdraine said the USAIP currently has no funding, although he’s looking for government funds to back the plan. The importance of a nationwide livestock tracking system was heightened by the most recent BSE case in the U.S., which resulted in a closure of export markets around the world to U.S. beef and a commensurate drop in the value of the U.S. beef herd, Fourdraine said.

It took the USDA four days to trace the origin of the Washington state cow infected with BSE to what the agency determined was its birth herd in Canada, according to Ron DeHaven, the USDA’s chief veterinary officer. DeHaven said the effort to find the diseased cow was “shoe-leather type work,” which involved tracing paper records and holding interviews with cattle owners, livestock dealers and market operators. He said this information was then correlated with records maintained by the producers and processors.

DeHaven said the U.S. “is well on the road” to developing a nationwide electronic livestock ID system. However, Wayne Baggett, a USDA spokesman, said the agency couldn’t address funding for the USAIP yet.

Fourdraine said the USAIP has a goal of identifying animals within 48 hours. He added that if a nationwide animal identification system had been in place last week, tracing of the Washington animal could have been done in even less time.

Mick Prendergast, manager of Australia’s National Livestock Identification Scheme (NLIS), which uses RFID tags to track cattle, said he could trace an electronically tagged cow “in 10 seconds or less.” Prendergast said 35,000 out of 100,000 producers in Australia use RFID tags, with some 7.5 million cattle out of 28 million in the country equipped with the tags and traceable through the NLIS database. Australia will take NLIS nationwide by this July, with traceability mandatory for animals shipped to countries in the European Union.

Prendergast said that North Sydney-based Meat & Livestock Australia Ltd. (MLA), a producer-owned organization that runs the NLIS, views speedy livestock tracing as essential to protecting its export markets, which account for about 70 per cent of the country’s beef production.

Scott Stuart, president of the Colorado Springs, Colo.-based National Livestock Producers Association, said the ability to isolate infected livestock would help the U.S. calm jitters in its export markets, such as Japan. Stuart said he agreed with Fourdraine that the U.S. government should pick up the infrastructure cost for the USAIP. But, he added, producers will also shoulder “considerable costs,” including that of the RFID tags, which would amount to US$400 million or more for the 200 million cattle, sheep and pigs produced in the U.S. annually.

Kip Kernodle, president of Allflex USA Inc., an NLIS-approved supplier of RFID readers and tags in Australia, said a US$2 tag is a “minimal cost” for an animal that can sell for thousands of dollars.

DeeVon Bailey, an agricultural economist at Utah State University in Logan, said, “The [recent] event…has absolutely demonstrated the need for a national livestock ID system in the United States.” He added that the US$600 million cost of such a system is low compared with the costs absorbed by the U.S. agricultural industry because of the closing of its export markets last week. He estimated that the price of cattle has dropped “(US)$10 to $15 per hundredweight” (equal to 100 pounds) due to BSE concerns, which resulted in a US$3.6 billion overall cost to the U.S. beef industry.

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