Lawmakers in the US have proposed a mandatory livestock identification system to combat outbreaks of food borne disease such as mad cow or foot and mouth disease. The system would work by keeping track of herd movements and being able to quickly identify animals suspected of carrying disease.
If the bill is passed, it would give the US agricultural department (USDA) 90 days to establish a nationwide, electronic livestock identification system that could track farm-raised animals, such as cattle, hogs, sheep and poultry, from birth to slaughter. The estimated cost of the project has been put at $175 million (€138m).
According to Minnesota Democrat Collin Peterson, the computer system could be patterned on one developed by Holstein dairy farmers and could be "up and ready to go in two to three weeks." It could take longer however for producers to buy the radio transmitter ear tags and implant them on their animals.
But supporters of the initiative maintain that the project would be a quicker to implement than the US Animal Identification Plan being developed by a consortium of industry groups and state and federal agencies.
Agriculture secretary Ann Veneman said that the USDA had not decided if participation in the programme should be mandatory. She said that the USDA should set standards for the livestock tracking system but not specify use of a particular technology.The task of effectively identifying every animal in the US is a daunting challenge, no matter which system is finally adopted. There are 95 million of cattle and calves, 60 million pigs and tens of millions of chickens, turkeys and ducks in the United States, according to USDA figures.
However, it is clear that the first case of mad cow disease in the US has given impetus to the concept of a comprehensive animal ID system. Other countries, including Canada, already have traceback systems, which have been proven to be far more effective than the tracking and record keeping systems used in the US.
"I'll guarantee you those 52 cows that weren't found are going to come back to haunt us," Peterson said, referring to the mad cow investigation that ended without locating 52 of the herd mates of the first US cow found with mad cow disease.
The International Review Subcommittee Report on the BSE outbreak in the US certainly made strong recommendations for the adoption of rapid screening tests, a suggestion that Dr. Ron DeHaven, chief veterinary officer at the USDA's Animal and Plant Inspection Service (APHIS), claims is being carried out. " This is consistent with the department's announcement to accept application for licensure of such tests on January 9," he said.
"The subcommittee acknowledged the importance of an effective animal identification and traceability system, once again consistent with the secretary's (Ann Veneman's) announcement to accelerate the implementation of such a plan in the United States."
Some form of animal ID or traceability system is clearly vital if the US is to regain global consumer confidence. Following the discovery of a low pathogenic strain of the bird flu virus in Delaware, Japan, Poland, Singapore, Malaysia and South Korea have also banned US poultry imports.
Most worryingly of all, Russia, the single largest foreign market for US poultry, announced on Monday that it was temporarily banning the import of most poultry products from Delaware. Bans on poultry from nearby states would be considered if bird flu is found outside the infected site, Russia's Veterinary Service said.