Urgent improvements in livestock tracking systems are needed if public health and the well-being of food production are to be protected, according to a UK House of Commons Public Accounts Committee report published this week.
It claims that the government's system for tracing the movements of cattle, introduced after the BSE crisis of the 1990s, is obsolete and in serious need of improvement. Committee chairman Edward Leigh said that the system had been developed in haste, and was "more expensive and less efficient" than systems used in other EU countries.
"There is an urgent need for improvement in Defra's systems for tracking livestock," said Leigh. "The Cattle Tracing System in particular is inefficient, overly burdensome, and based on obsolete technology. And it does not fully meet the needs of state veterinarians to control outbreaks of infectious diseases amongst cattle, which is all the more unacceptable given that it was introduced in response to the BSE crisis in the 1990s."
He added that the system has suffered from serious technical difficulties in terms of access, ease of use, maintainability, adaptability and its link with other systems.
In England, the government spends £30 million each year on livestock identification and tracking. The main bodies involved are the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), responsible for policy, and the Department's British Cattle Movement Service, which since April 2003 has been part of the Rural Payments Agency. Computer systems track individual cattle genealogy and movements (the Cattle Tracing System) and movements of batches of cattle, sheep and pigs (the Animal Movements Licensing System).
The department's State Veterinary Service uses separate computer systems for animal health and disease control. The department plans more integrated and effective systems through the phased introduction of a £136 million Livestock Identification and Tracing Programme.
However, the committee found that the Cattle Tracing System is more expensive and less efficient than systems used in other EU Member States. Whilst the British Cattle Movement Service employs one person per 5,000 cattle registered, in Denmark the ratio is one person per 40,000 cattle.
Making markets responsible for reporting all relevant animal movements would reduce anomalies, and could save around £1 million in postage costs a year, according to the committee report, entitled Identifying and tracking livestock in England.
Currently the Cattle Tracing System requires notifications from seller, market and buyer, and where these fail to match, or not all are received, they result in an anomaly. Triple and postal notification, involving handwritten entries, increases the numbers of these anomalies, with some 1.2 million anomalies remaining to be corrected.
Most livestock markets have well developed and audited systems, and would be better placed, when a movement is through the market, to report all relevant elements of a transaction.
"In developing its new systems, Defra must learn from practices in other EU Member States, and work in real partnership with industry, in order to provide the public with effective but efficient ways of protecting health and maximise the commercial benefits for farming," said Leigh.
Particular areas that merit attention are the cost and error rates associated with eartags; the speed and cost of registering births and recording deaths; the extent to which industry can access centrally-held records; and best practice in data validation and movement notification.
In addition, the committee argues that the department's new Livestock Register should be an important tool in controlling disease outbreaks. The register is being developed through the Livestock Identification and Tracing Programme, and should be fully integrated with the computer systems used by the Department's State Veterinary Service.
The department's new systems should also benefit the industry in areas such as livestock management, breeding and supporting quality assurance. To maximise these benefits and win industry co-operation, the committee has urged defra to work in active partnership with the industry on the design, management and operation of its new systems, rather than just consulting with the industry as a stakeholder.
The department should also, with the industry, establish a clear plan for the recovery of costs of livestock identification and tracing systems for the future, with greater sharing of costs as happens in other Member States.