Agriculture head backs national livestock ID system

RFID tags will be used to track livestock from birth to slaughterhouse

Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman yesterday called for the creation of a nationwide animal identification system to help enhance the speed and accuracy of the U.S. Department of Agriculture's response to disease outbreaks, such as the bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) discovered in a single dairy cow in Washington state last week.

The Agriculture Department, livestock producers and processors have developed a program called the U.S. Animal Identification Plan (USAIP) that will use radio frequency identification tags to track livestock from birth to slaughterhouse, with information about the 200 million head of livestock in the U.S. stored in a national database. The system is expected to cost about $600 million to implement.

Such a system, similar to those already in place in other major beef-exporting nations (see story), would help the USDA quickly trace diseased animals back to their birth herds, a key to locating other potentially infected animals. It took the USDA four days to trace the infected Washington state Holstein back to its birth herd, and the department still hasn't traced 81 animals from that herd. Automated systems, such as Australia's National Livestock Identification Scheme, in operation since 1999 and due to go nationwide in July, can do such a trace in a matter of seconds.

At a press briefing yesterday, Veneman didn't say how the USDA intends to fund the livestock ID system. She did say that USDA CIO Scott Charbo would lead the effort to develop such a system. Maria Bynum, a USDA spokesman, said the department couldn't provide funding details at this time and said Charbo is on vacation and unavailable for comment.

On Nov. 20, Rep. Diana DeGette (D-Colo) introduced a bill, HR 3546, calling for improving the USDA's ability to trace all livestock and poultry in the country. But a DeGette spokesman said he couldn't address funding at this time. DeGette plans to look at the funding issue "early in the new year," the spokesman said.

Rod Nilsestuen, secretary of the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture's Trade and Consumer Protection division, said he believes the USDA should help fund the national livestock system, considering the impact that discovery of BSE, also known as mad cow disease, has had on U.S. beef exports and the huge economic hit against the nation's beef industry during the past week.

DeeVon Bailey, an agricultural economist at Utah State University in Logan, estimated the value of the U.S. beef herd has dropped by almost $4 billion in the past week, and said a national livestock ID system aimed at addressing a public health issue should be federally funded. Otherwise, Bailey said, livestock producers and processors might have to pick up a big chunk of the $600 million tab.

Dave Miller, director of commodity services at the Iowa Farm Bureau in Des Moines, said that given the size of the overall federal budget, paying for a national livestock ID system "is not a big deal." He believes Congress will provide the money needed.

Rex Moore, president of Maverick Ranch Natural Meats in Denver, said he believes the industry could develop a nationwide livestock ID system "much more efficiently than the federal government, which will create some big, cumbersome monster." Moore also argued that a national system should incorporate other technologies besides RFID tags.

Moore said he favors a retinal scan system developed by Optibrand Ltd in Fort Collins, Colo. He called Optibrand's system less expensive and more foolproof than RFID tags. The Optibrand reader incorporates a GPS receiver, which allows for recording an animal's location and identity simultaneously, Moore said. Retinal-scan-based ID systems also avoid the problem of an animal losing its RFID tag or having it removed.

The state of Wisconsin doesn't plan to wait for a nationwide livestock ID system, according to Nilsestuen. The state has obtained federal funds to jump-start its own system, run by the Wisconsin Livestock Identification Consortium (WLIC) in Verona, Wis.

Robert Fourdraine, chief operating officer of the WLIC, said the consortium has already established what it calls a premises system, which assigns a unique number linked to the location of farms and producers in the state, as the baseline for tracing livestock.

Ken Kayser, director of demand chain management at Clarkston Consulting in Durham, N.C., which is developing the Wisconsin ID system under contract from the WLIC, said Clarkston will move on to tagging and tracking of livestock in Wisconsin in February.

Clarkston based its system on software developed for Canada's livestock-tracking system, which is managed by the Calgary-based Canadian Cattle Identification Agency (CCIA), a nonprofit group whose members include producers, marketing associations and Canadian government agencies. Kayser said Clarkston this year purchased the health informatics division of QC Data International Inc. in Calgary, which developed the livestock-tracking system used by the CCIA. He noted that the Wisconsin project is based on the USAIP standards.

Phaedra Culjak-Reif, business development manager for AgInfoLink USA Inc. in Longmont, Colo., said that although the USAIP called for development of a national livestock ID database, in her view it makes more sense to develop statewide databases divided by species.

AgInfoLink and four other companies have formed the Beef Information Exchange to develop systems for a national livestock ID program, Culjak-Reif said. The other members of the Beef Information Exchange are APEIS Corp. in Norfolk, Neb., Emerge Interactive Inc. in Sebastian, Fla., IMI Global Inc. in Platte City, Mo., and Micro Beef Technologies Ltd. in Amarillo, Texas.

Both Kayser and Culjak-Reif said that if the USDA develops plans for a national contract, their companies would likely partner with major systems integrators such as Electronic Data Systems Corp. or Computer Sciences Corp. on the project.

Copyright © 2003 IDG Communications, Inc.

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