Agriculture secretary backs livestock ID system

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 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.

‘The US$600 million question’

However, it’s still unclear how an initiative like the USAIP would be paid for. Robert Fourdraine, chief operating officer at the Wisconsin Livestock Identification Consortium and IT director for the RFID proposal, said funding “is the US$600 million question.” That’s the amount estimated to be needed to deploy a nationwide tracking system.

At a press briefing, Veneman didn’t say how the USDA plans to fund the system it envisions. She named Scott Charbo, the agency’s CIO, to lead the development effort. Charbo was on vacation and unavailable for comment last week, according to a USDA spokeswoman.

On Nov. 20, U.S. Rep. Diana DeGette (D-Colo.) introduced a bill calling for improvements in the USDA’s ability to trace all livestock and poultry in the U.S. But a DeGette spokesman said he couldn’t address funding now, either. DeGette plans to look at the funding issue “early in the new year,” he added.

Rod Nilsestuen, secretary of the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture’s Trade and Consumer Protection division, said he thinks the USDA should help fund the national tracking system because of the economic hit that the nation’s beef industry has taken following the discovery of BSE in Washington.

The USAIP calls for a staged technology rollout, starting with a nationwide repository of farms and meat processors that could be in place by July. The livestock database, which would assign unique identifying numbers to animals based on RFID specifications developed by the International Standards Organization, is expected to be launched in July 2005 and fully rolled out 12 months later.

But some companies in the meat industry are lobbying for the use of technologies other than RFID tags. Rex Moore, president of Maverick Ranch Natural Meats in Denver, said he favors a retinal scan system developed by Optibrand Ltd. in Fort Collins, Colo. Moore called Optibrand’s technology less expensive and more foolproof than RFID tags.

The Optibrand reader incorporates a GPS receiver, which allows users to simultaneously record the identity and location of an animal, Moore said. A retinal scan system would also eliminate the potential problem of an RFID tag falling off an animal or being removed, he added.

Swift & Co., the third-largest meatpacker in the U.S., said it also plans to use Optibrand’s technology as part of a cattle-tracking system that it’s offering to suppliers. Greeley, Colo.-based Swift added that it’s looking at extending the system to retailers and food service companies.

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