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Cattle Trails

RFID technology could be used to build a national livestock-tracking system

A Cow in northern Michigan last year developed tuberculosis, and, in just a few hours, the Michigan State Department of Agriculture was able to figure out where the animal was born and what other livestock it may have come in contact with. The quick action was made possible by data stored in a radio-frequency identification chip on a round plastic tag pierced through the animal's ear. As a result, other cattle that might have been infected with TB were found and tested before they could pass the disease along, possibly even to humans.

In contrast, it took two weeks for federal officials to complete the DNA tests that confirmed the Alberta, Canada, birthplace of a Washington state cow that was identified on Dec. 23 as having bovine spongiform encephalopathy, or mad-cow disease. U.S. Department of Agriculture officials had to wade through a mound of paper records and other data maintained by breeders and meatpackers to trace and recall beef that may have been exposed to tissue from the infected cow. Prices for live cattle dropped about 15% to 80 cents per pound the week of the discovery. And last week, a herd of nearly 450 Holstein calves, among them the unidentifiable offspring of the infected cow, had to be destroyed.

A national livestock-tracking system would help avert these dramatic outcomes. Such a program would be the biggest IT project ever attempted by the meat industry, potentially costing nearly $600 million over six years, according to those working on the project. An RFID-enabled ear tag alone can cost up to five times as much as a typical 75-cent metal ear tag with an identification number, though RFID tags could drop to $1 each in volume if all 100 million cattle in the country had them.

When you consider that ranchers were paid about $225 less per cow sold during Christmas week, the costs don't seem so high, says Monte Bordner, owner of Bordner Farms, a cattle ranch in Sturgis, Mich., and president of the Michigan Cattleman's Association. "If we could have avoided or minimized that with a national ID system, a $1 investment for an RFID ear tag is nothing." RFID is worth the investment even at today's higher costs, he says.

Plans call for a technology-enabled tracking system for livestock to be in place by summer, although who will foot the bill for it, who will maintain the data, and how data will be secured has yet to be addressed. The retail, consumer packaged-goods, defense, and pharmaceuticals industries already have embraced RFID, and now the livestock industry is preparing to take its own early efforts to a broader audience.

RFID safeguards the food supply, says the Holstein Association's Cronce.
"Our industry historically hasn't been a big technology user, but RFID is a way to implement a national animal-ID system that monitors the country's food supply and adds safeguards against infectious diseases," says Richard Cronce, executive director of IT at the Holstein Association USA, a nonprofit consortium of 35,000 dairy producers. It's one of 70 organizations, including the USDA and the National Cattleman's Beef Association, that 18 months ago banded together to develop the United States Animal Identification Plan, which proposes that ranchers voluntarily use RFID and other technologies by July.

The National Animal Identification Development Team, which is the group working on the national plan, is accepting comments on the proposal through the end of this month. Congress also is looking into the tracking issue, so it's possible that what's now a voluntary effort may become a legal requirement.

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