Alabama's mad cow case highlights need for U.S. livestock tracking

Sunday, March 19, 2006

Industry groups will run the system and enrolling will be voluntary for producers.

WASHINGTON -- Investigators may never figure out where the Alabama cow with mad cow disease was born and raised, in part because the U.S. lacks a livestock tracking system the Bush administration promised two years ago.

After the first case of mad cow disease in December 2003, the government pledged to get a nationwide program into place quickly so officials could track cows, pigs and chickens from their birth to the dinner table. Today, however, the system is a long way off.

Alabama officials saw the need firsthand last week as they tried to discover where the infected cow came from.

The animal had no ear tags, tattoos or brands, and spent less than a year on the farm where she died. The trail seems to have gone cold at an auction where she was sold last year.

"We need an animal ID program in this country so it will help our industry and help our farmers when we have these kind of situations," the state's agriculture commissioner, Ron Sparks, said Friday in Montgomery, Ala.

Pinpointing animals

Ideally, a cow such as the one in this case would get the same number throughout its life. Farms, sale barns and feedlots would have unique numbers, too. Different technologies, including radio-frequency tags, retinal scans or even DNA of a cow's eye could help with the tracking.

The goal is to pinpoint a single animal's movements within 48 hours after mad cow or a different disease is discovered.

It is not an easy task in a country with 9 billion chickens, pigs and cows.

"We have a lot of protein being raised in this country," Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns said last week. "It's something that we want to give the industry some time to adjust to and prepare for."

Johanns promised last May that the tracking system would be in place, run by the government and with mandatory participation, by 2009.

The goal of 2009 has not changed, though some details have.

Johanns says industry groups will be allowed to run the system -- his department would have access to the data -- and enrolling will be voluntary for producers. The agency's Web site says, "Learn more about the voluntary program," although Johanns says it will be required for everyone someday.

While many ranchers and other producers are resistant to the idea, industry groups are moving forward with their own programs. For example, the National Cattlemen's Beef Association helped develop a system using Microsoft technology that is now being run by an independent group, the U.S. Animal ID Organization.

Questions from critics

In Congress, some lawmakers are frustrated. Rep. Rosa DeLauro of Connecticut, the top Democrat on an important farm spending subcommittee, said the department seems to be making up the program on the go.

"When are we going to get real and put a system in place that will make a difference to the public health of this nation?" DeLauro asked a department official last week.

She and other critics question why producers would sign up if participation is not required.

The chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee, Republican Saxby Chambliss of Georgia, said he would just as soon address the system when Congress writes a new farm bill next year.

Chambliss mentioned the privacy concerns of those who raise and feed cattle; they tend to guard their business information closely.

"We want to make sure we do it right," Chambliss told reporters last week. "That's the important thing. Later is better than doing it early and not doing it right."

Still, he pointed out that foreign customers are paying a premium for beef that can be traced.

So far, the department has assigned individual numbers to 213,376 farms and other "premises." This month, officials moved closer to issuing numbers to animals when they released guidelines for manufacturers of ear tags and other devices.

The department has also spent tens of millions of dollars to help states get tracking programs up and running.


On the Net:

Agriculture Department's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service: http://animalid.aphis.usda.gov/nais/index.shtml

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