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8/24/2006
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RFID May Be Key To Finding Latest Mad Cow Case

Canada has spotted more cases of mad cow disease, and some U.S. experts say an aggressive RFID tagging program has helped find sick animals faster.

The Canadian Food Inspection Agency identified at least the seventh case of mad cow disease in the country since 2003, and U.S. livestock experts attribute the quick findings to technology. The agency confirmed Thursday another case of mad cow disease in an Alberta animal.

The Canadian government several years ago created the Canadian Cattlemen's Identification Association to implement a national ID program. The association oversees radio frequency identification tag distribution and manages a database of information on livestock.

"We know there's mad cow out there," said Richard Cronce, executive director of new business development at the Holstein Association USA, a nonprofit consortium of more than 35,000 dairy producers. "Canada seems to have a very aggressive testing procedure, and the U.S. needs to step up the process. The fact they managed to find so many isn't based on luck."

Taking steps to protect the food supply in the United States, companies have begun designing systems that monitor the health of cattle. IBM Corp. and TekVet, a division of Colt Technologies LLC, Thursday launched a hosted system based on active RFID.

An RFID sensor called TekSensor inserted in the ear of a cow collects the information from up to 500 feet, and sends the data wirelessly to receiving stations on a cattleman's ranch. A private satellite network transmits the information to TekVet's data center hosted by IBM, processing information for millions of cattle.

Manual U.S. livestock identification procedures have been in place for years. But paper, pencil and spreadsheets began disappearing in September 2005, following much debate nearly two years after the U.S. Department of Agriculture identified a cow infected with bovine spongiform encephalopathy, or mad-cow disease.

Since then, the USDA has allocated $33 million per fiscal year, in federal funds to support the project during development. About 60 percent of the funding goes toward states and tribes to deploy the program, with the balance spent on IT development and staffing, said Neil Hammerschmidt, coordinator for the National Animal Identification System in U.S. Department of Agriculture services.

There are three phases to the project, Hammerschmidt explained. The third begins early next year. It entails setting up a series of databases that will give the livestock industry the ability to track information across the U.S. "The technology part of the program is voluntary," he said. "It's the producer's option to integrate an electronic ID system."

The USDA has spent the last few months combing through proposals from organizations and companies in the livestock industry that want to take part in building a national tracking system. The platform would include roughly 20 databases managed and maintained by private industry. Data from birth date to doctor visits and vaccinations for numerous types of livestock, including more than 90 million cows, would reside in those databases.

Designing the system also means pulling together a communication infrastructure that allows state and federal health officials to send requests for information through the Animal Trace Processing System in the event of an outbreak, Hammerschmidt said.

The Holstein Association could become an organization chartered to build and maintain one database. "The information will be held by private industry and the government will only have access to the information if something happens," Cronce said. "Today, the program to track livestock is voluntary, but I'm not sure how long it will remain that way."

Volunteering to use the electronic animal identification system began in April. For dairy and cattle ranchers, that meant an option to use plastic ear tags embedded with radio frequency identification chips rather than just using a visual number on the outside or the tag.

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