Bovine Intervention

By Doug Bartholomew Print this article Print

The nationwide rollout of the USDA’s animal identification system is slow to gain acceptance, even though the RFID technology it is based on is being used to track millions of manufacturing parts and billions of dollars in retail inventory.

It was supposed to help stem an outbreak of mad-cow disease. Instead, the Bush administration’s proposal to electronically brand tens of millions of farm animals with RFID (radio-frequency identification) tags is producing some very angry farmers and ranchers.

The National Animal Identification System was conceived to track outbreaks of animal disease—whether as a result of natural causes or bioterrorism. The catalyst for NAIS was the 2003 mad-cow scare in Washington state, in which a single Canadian dairy cow, which entered the United States along with 81 other cows, was found to have bovine spongiform encephalopathy. Because there wasn’t an adequate traceback system, only 29 of the 81 cows could be identified, so agriculture officials were forced to oversee the destruction of more than 250 animals from 10 different herds.

The impact was dramatic: U.S. beef exports fell off a cliff, and sales have yet to return to pre-2003 levels.

In response, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) developed NAIS in 2004. It was intended to be a mandatory program, but was quickly made voluntary when farmers and ranchers complained that the government was forcing them to buy expensive technology.

Under the voluntary plan, the USDA has set a goal of registering all the nation’s 1.4 million farms and other premises where livestock are kept, and tagging at least 70 percent of the country’s 100 million cattle, 60 million pigs, and 10 million sheep and goats. Domestic critters get a waiver; every other animal in the barnyard must be tagged individually, or in the case of chickens, as a group. The list includes bison, alpacas, burros, llamas, mules, donkeys, horses, deer and elk that are raised for meat. Animals that never leave their home farm and are consumed there get a waiver.

The NAIS program consists of three parts: premises registration, animal identification tagging and animal tracking. NAIS participants order animal ID tags with numbers that are linked to their premises ID numbers. In general, the tags must be affixed to the ears of cattle, sheep, pigs or other animals bound for slaughterhouses, as well as those expected to be entered in competitions, such as 4H or county and state fairs, where they come in contact with other animals.

“If we find a tag in the course of a disease investigation, we can immediately determine its origin,” says Dave Wiklund, project manager for software development at the NAIS unit of the USDA. By entering the animal identification number (AIN) into the animal tracking database (ATD) for that state, an agriculture inspector can access the animal’s whereabouts from the time it left the premises of origin until it was slaughtered, to determine what other animals it came in contact with and where. The USDA’s stated goal is for the NAIS to enable investigators to trace back an outbreak of animal disease to the source within 48 hours.

The cattle industry generally supports limited participation in NAIS. For instance, though one of its goals is to “minimize direct federal involvement in agriculture,” the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association recommends that beef cattle producers register their premises under the NAIS. The industry trade group’s Web site states, “The organization supports a producer-led, market-driven animal identification system.”

This article was originally published on 2008-04-30
Doug Bartholomew is a career journalist who has covered information technology for more than 15 years. A former senior editor at IndustryWeek and InformationWeek, his freelance features have appeared in New York magazine and the Los Angeles Times Magazine. He has a B.S. in Journalism from Northwestern University.
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