- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 27, 2004

U.S. lawmakers are calling for a national system to track the movement of animals from birth to slaughter in response to the country’s first case of mad cow disease, and different companies and systems are competing for a piece of the multimillion-dollar project.

Agriculture Secretary Ann M. Veneman, just days after the Dec. 23 discovery of mad cow disease, said the creation of such a system would be a top priority.

“Our goal is a nationwide system that is uniform, consistent and efficient,” she said yesterday at a Senate hearing.

U.S. farmers, feedlots and slaughterhouses now rely on a patchwork of systems, or no system at all, to track cattle and record any health problems.

In the mad cow investigation, veterinary officials have made what they call “remarkable” progress tracking the single infected cow and 80 herd mates that entered the United States from Canada in 2001.

In part, they have been lucky. The infected cow was a Holstein, a breed that generally wears an identification number on an ear tag. Even with the paperwork, it has taken five weeks to locate about one-third of the herd at nine cattle operations in three states.

Investigators do not expect to identify all 80 cows because some have been slaughtered and others have lost their ID tags.

A new system would create a national database and allow complete health and location history within 48 hours, according to requirements in the U.S. Animal Identification Plan, a federal, state and industry outline for cattle and other livestock.

The plan foresees more than $545 million in costs over five years.

“That is the draft plan we would work from, but what we end up with may be very different,” said USDA spokeswoman Julie Quick.

The high economic stakes for the $27 billion cattle industry and the chance to promote favored projects has lawmakers weighing in.

“Animal traceability is the key to stopping animal disease outbreaks from spreading,” Sen. Patrick J. Leahy, Vermont Democrat, said last week as he introduced legislation that would require the Agriculture Department to implement a tracking system within 90 days.

The proposal would require the adoption of the National Farm Animal Identification and Records system, known as National FAIR, developed by the government and the Vermont-based National Holstein Association. The system tags each head of cattle with an ID number at birth, like a Social Security number. The number can be read visually or electronically through radio-frequency identification (RFID) and indicates location, species, breed, sex, date of birth, other animals at the premises, animal movement and health data.

The National FAIR program tracks some 1 million animals in 43 states, including those at 25 farms in Maryland and one in Virginia, according to the association.

“We can get online and track our herds now,” said John Emerling, a dairy farmer from Perry, N.Y., about 50 miles south of Buffalo. He has used the ear tags and radio transmitters on his 1,000 Holsteins since 1999.

But the Agriculture Department has been reluctant to mandate one specific system.

“I … want to make sure that we do it right and that we do it with enough flexibility to allow technology to advance in the future, and to allow systems to come together and give us the information we need,” Mrs. Veneman told a congressional panel last week.

Other publicly funded projects and private companies see a role for their own technology.

“It’s going to take the effort of a lot of groups to get a national program together,” said Robert Fourdraine, chief operating officer for the Wisconsin Livestock Identification Consortium, a state program to register farms into a central database.

Florida-based EMerge Interactive, a private company, developed software and a radio frequency-based tracking system aimed at beef producers. The firm also co-founded the Beef Information Exchange with four other companies to offer what they call industry-driven solutions for cattlemen.

“I would say that we don’t expect any one company to be named the national database. We certainly expect for the industry to develop its own solution,” said Tim Niedecken, EMerge’s director of information products.

The beef industry so far has taken a go-slow approach, said Bryan Dierlam, director of legislative affairs with the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association.

“Every university and state kind of has their plan. It’s important from our perspective that we recognize what the needs are, rather than just pick up something off the shelf that may be available but not meet our needs,” he said.

At the very least, the system would require significant time and effort to tag each of the nation’s 96 million head of cattle. And it will cost plenty.

Farmers such as Mr. Emerling and beef industry representatives such as Mr. Dierlam hope the government will pay. Supporters in Congress, including Mr. Leahy, agree that a national system should be taxpayer funded.

“But who’s going to pay and how much is yet to be determined,” Mr. Dierlam said.

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