Back at the Ranch

The discovery last May of a case of mad cow disease in Alberta sparked a massive search by officials from the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) and the Alberta government to find the origin and history of the infected cow.

They did, eventually, but the time it took to unearth the cows’ history while the whole world was watching reminded many in Canada’s booming livestock sector that a faster and more effective way was needed to track farm livestock in the event of an outbreak of disease. Proposals had already been made, and government officials responsible for tackling livestock diseases largely agreed on them. The case of BSE added a sense of urgency to the discussions.

The cost of the BSE episode, which involved only one sick cow, is staggering. Cattle farmers are thought to have lost at least $1 billion in missed sales and lower prices for their animals as well as millions more in other expenses. The federal government has launched a compensation program to help defray the losses; the CFIA spent more than $8 million to confirm that there was only one case of the dreaded disease.

What is needed, industry and government representatives agree, is a system that would enable inspectors to quickly determine where any trouble spots were and isolate them especially for highly contagious diseases.

The most promising solution under consideration by livestock groups, with the support of the CFIA and Agriculture Canada, is in fact two related plans to marry computer information systems and the livestock industry. One plan calls for a GIS map of all the livestock farms and related facilities across Canada. The other would create a national livestock identification agency to keep track of the movement of all farm animals in Canada.

Not only would these two systems be important in halting the spread of livestock diseases, they would also assure customers in Canada and overseas that any health threats were under control and our food remained safe.

Victor D’Angiolo of the CFIA says the electronic map, being prepared by Angus Geosystems Inc. of Georgetown, Ont. for presentation to livestock groups and government agencies, offers the best way to pinpoint the location of animals across Canada. Mailing addresses and other locators would leave too many gaps in the database, he says: “Agriculture is changing so rapidly. The question is how to best collect the most information with the least cost.”

The information would be stored in a database that health inspectors could access by computer. An incident on a small dairy farm in eastern Ontario in 2002 shows the value of such a system. Bovine tuberculosis, a highly contagious cattle disease, was found near Peterborough. Once animal health officials confirmed the diagnosis, CFIA and Ontario health officials drove up and down roads in a 10 km radius around the farm looking for other livestock operations. They needed to find out quickly if the disease had spread or if there was any threat to the other farms.

In this instance, the disease had never left the farm. If it had, it could have spread even farther while the inspectors checked within the 10 km distance. That would of course have added to the cost and complexity of the case. Incidents of the disease have to be reported to an international veterinary organization and if it had spread exports of cattle and beef from Ontario could have been halted.

If an electronic map had been available at the time of the Peterborough incident, the inspectors could have simply entered the farm’s location into their computer and up from the database would have come a digital map showing all the nearby farms with details about the livestock on them. Watercourses and roads would be marked on the maps. This check could have been made before the inspectors even visited the farm. Armed with this information, the inspectors could have planned their inspections of other farms, or if it had been necessary, imposed a quarantine in a matter of moments instead of searching up and down the back concessions. There would have been no guesswork about what farms would be affected.

In the coming months, agriculture groups will get their first in-depth look at the proposed electronic map. D’Angiolo points out that assembling all the information required for the database would be costly and time consuming, as would keeping it all up to date. He noted that while poultry and hogs are generally raised in closed facilities and shipped to processing plants in lots, the other species may be sold several times during the course of their lives.

Meanwhile, discussions on the creation of a national livestock identification agency will be ramped up as the hog and poultry industries decide whether they want to participate or run their own ID systems. Livestock tracking is off to a good start with beef and dairy cattle, sheep and bison farmers already enrolled in the Canadian Cattle Identification Agency. Goats and horses are expected to join as well.

A producer-run cattle ID agency set up in the late 1990s to introduce an ear tag-based system for tracking cattle was seen by cattlemen and government officials as one tool to be used in controlling disease outbreaks. Its data has been employed on a number of occasions by the CFIA including in the investigation of the BSE incident.

Julie Stitt, manager of the agency, says bringing the hog and poultry sectors into a national organization based on the cattle ID model will depend on whether their different identification requirements can be accommodated. The cattle agency issues ear tags so the animals all have a unique number. The tags are based on a bar code system, but they are to be switched to a radio frequency format in 2005. That will simplify the task of recording the numbers every time an animal is sold or moved. The data from the tags is compiled directly in the database at a cost that Stitt describes as pennies per record.

Creating a national livestock ID agency will require a lot of government support, she adds. “The CFIA is really pushing this.” The hog and poultry industries don’t think they need to go as far as individual animal or bird tags because of the fact their animals tend to stay together. The can be tracked by herd and flock numbers.

Both the electronic map and national ID initiatives are expected to require considerable government funding. The federal government has supported both, as it sees them playing a key role in a national food traceability project. Traceability is a key ingredient in the Agriculture Policy Framework that Agriculture Canada has devised to increase the export potential of the agriculture and food sectors in Canada.

Dan Lutz, who heads the traceability project for Agriculture Canada, said the map and ID programs would be important building blocks for the whole initiative. There are benefits beyond containing livestock diseases: “If we had another situation like the ice storm in Ontario and Quebec, we would quickly know where all the farms were. That would make it easier to know where to distribute generators and understand where animals would be under stress. Really they are just a starting point for a lot of things we could do.”

It’s also important that all the livestock groups are working together on the two projects, he continued. “It’s a lot better than them coming to us for funding for 47 different projects.” Like the others, Lutz wasn’t able to put a price tag on the two projects.

The pork industry is already a major supporter of geo-referencing and national livestock traceability, notes Eric Aubin, technical adviser to the Canadian Pork Council. Some provinces have already made a start on geo-referencing of farms by working from aerial photos. Ontario Pork has almost completed a geo-referencing of swine premises in the province. “Now they have to find a way to keep it up to date.”

Aubin also says that because of the scope of the project and the kind of data that could be collected, it has to be introduced gradually so it doesn’t overwhelm farmers or the government officials who will use it. “We cannot do it all at once.”

As for the animal ID agency, the hog industry has to study whether the database designed for cattle can be adapted for tracking pigs. The Pork Council is waiting to hear from the agency and the operator of its database on what accommodations can be made. “We also need to know what it will cost.”

While governments and farmers ruminate about the cost of setting up these programs, the demands for increased traceability of food products from Canada’s major customers are pushing both into advancing these high tech developments as quickly as possible.

Alex Binkley ([email protected]) is an Ottawa-based freelance journalist with an extensive background in agricultural issues.

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