RFID-enabled tattoos eyed for livestock tracking

The 'chipless' ink technology could help farmers meet U.S. tagging rules

Start-up firm Somark Innovations is touting technology designed to help tag and trace livestock with radio frequency identification (RFID)-enabled ink tattoos.

The St. Louis-based company announced earlier this month that it had successfully completed live animal tests using cows and laboratory rats that show its "chipless" RFID ink works. Instead of attaching an RFID chip to a cow's ear, for instance, Somark's proprietary process relies on injecting the animal with non-toxic ink, said Mark Pydynowski, the year-old company's president.

The tagging process is simple: the RFID ink, which has special reflective properties, is injected into the animal's skin and forms a pattern such as an identifying number. A proprietary Somark RFID scanner can then read the ink pattern with a radio signal. "The ink is bio-compatible," Pydynowski said. "It's chemically inert and doesn't cause a problem to the animal. It's like drinking a glass of water."

One agribusiness veteran who serves as a non-paid member of the Somark advisory board, Bob Van Schoick, president of Med-Pharmex Animal Health, said the cost and reliability of the Somark technology make it more attractive than conventional RFID tracking gear. Med-Pharmex Animal Health makes and sells animal health products.

Somark's potential also won praise from Dale Blasi, a professor in the animal sciences and industry department at Kansas State University in Manhattan.

"I applaud the development of any innovative technology that will effectively track animals with a minimum of cost to the livestock producer or obtrusiveness to the animal," he said. "Having said that, this concept, like many other emerging technologies, will require a gauntlet of testing under a variety of cattle management and environmental conditions to determine its reliability and robustness before it is deemed to be a viable option for achieving traceability in the U.S. beef cattle industry."

Current efforts to establish the controversial National Animal Identification System (NAIS) to help track animals infected with diseases such as bovine spongiform encephalopathy are doomed to fail, said Van Schoick. Price and reliability concerns are serious obstacles to implementing the ID system. On the other hand, a Somark ink tattoo would give each animal a unique identifier, cost about $1 each -- half the price of an RFID chip -- and be permanent.

Also, "it's potentially easier on the animal than putting a hole in its ear for an RFID chip," he said.

Somark, which has 50 employees, is looking to start the process of licensing its technology to third parties, Pydynowski explained. While Somark intends to sell into the cattle industry, partners that license the technology could create applications for other animals -- including pets, fish, lab specimens and produce. He predicted a strong market for the product.

"We've talked to enough players in the industry to validate the demand," he said.

Copyright © 2007 IDG Communications, Inc.

Shop Tech Products at Amazon