Tracking mad cows with IT

It took a week after a Washington cow tested positive for mad cow disease in December for the U.S. Department of Agriculture to announce new safeguards. Tighter controls on the meat supply came first. (Item No. 1: no more "downer animals" that can't walk.) Next up: an IT system to identify and track more than two dozen species of animals, including the nation's estimated 96 million cattle.

The mad cow incident has made developing the underlying technology for the US Animal Identification Plan (USAIP) -- in development since October 2002 -- an urgent priority for USDA CIO Scott Charbo, says Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman.

The initiative is similar to Australia's National Livestock Identification Scheme, first reported by Computerworld in January.

The animal ID plan's goal is to track the movements of more than two dozen species of mammals, birds and fish and be able to locate infected animals within 48 hours of a disease outbreak. Each animal -- or, for animals such as fish, each lot of animals -- would be tagged with a unique identification number. Organizers are endorsing radio frequency identification (RFID) tags; cattle would be fitted with ear tags containing an RFID chip storing each animal's ID number.

Forty-eight hours is faster than what occurs now with cattle. It took the government several days to confirm the infected cow's age and origin. The work to locate other cattle shipped with the infected cow from Canada to the United States is ongoing. At press time, 27 of 80 had been located. (Investigators also traced one of the infected cow's offspring to a second farm in Washington. Because authorities couldn't identify the exact animal, the entire herd of 450 was euthanized.)

President Bush is seeking US$33 million in the 2005 federal budget to speed up development of an animal ID system.

Before this mad cow case, the USDA had set July 2005 as the first deadline for ID tracking of interstate cattle movements. Progress for the project had stalled, however, as policy-makers and players from the livestock industry grappled with the program's complexity and cost (estimated to be $600 million). Along with finding the money to foot the bill, officials need to finalize data structures, database architectures and location technologies.

Frustration at the slow speed of the USAIP's development led five agricultural data service companies in October 2003 to set up the Beef Information Exchange to create data-sharing standards and lay the framework for a nationwide beef cattle tracking system.

"We don't want to replace the USAIP. We just can't wait a couple years for it," says Tim Niedecken, information products director for eMerge Interactive, a software and services vendor to the beef industry.

Niedecken, who is on an IT subcommittee for the USAIP project, says its wide scope slows progress.

For beef producers, adopting tracking tools can reassure nervous retailers and consumers. Denver-based Maverick Ranch recently has been testing a biometric ID system from Optibrand."Our customers want to know where the animal was raised, what we fed it, and where it was born, so I have to have a process in place to help bring some of that information together," says Rex Moore, Maverick's president.

While the USDA is leaning toward an RFID-enabled system with ear tags, Moore says he prefers Optibrand's retinal scanning technology. Ear tags can be lost or tampered with, while eyes can't. It costs $2,000 for an Optibrand reader and less than $1 per scan. During the lifetime of an animal, it would cost about $3 in imaging charges (shared by rancher, feed lot and slaughterhouse).

The expense is necessary, Moore adds. "The industry really does need it as a herd health tool," he says.

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