U.S. Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman in late December called for the creation of an automated system for identifying and tracking farm animals to improve the government’s ability to respond to emergencies, such as the recent case of mad cow disease discovered in Washington state.

A group of livestock producers and processors, with help from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, has developed a plan that calls for the use of radio frequency identification tags to track cows, pigs, sheep and other animals. The proposal, known as the U.S. Animal Identification Plan (USAIP), also includes a central database that would store RFID-generated information about the 200 million head of livestock in the U.S.

Such a system could help the USDA quickly trace diseased animals to their birth herds – a key to locating other animals that might be infected. It took the USDA four days to pinpoint the birth herd of the Holstein cow that had been infected with bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), the formal name for mad cow disease. Automated systems, which are already in place in several other major beef-exporting nations, can do such traces in a matter of seconds.