High-tech devices may track U.S. cows from birth to death

Mad cow scare prompts call for national ID system

January 12, 2004|By Stephanie Simon | Stephanie Simon,LOS ANGELES TIMES

BOWLING GREEN, Ky. - The cow kept losing her ear tag. Again and again, she would rub against a fence or a tree until the plastic tag, about the size of an index card, fell off.

So, rancher David Watson had to improvise when tracking her in his booklet of Herd Production Records. "Big Red," he wrote in the space set aside for her tag number. Then he drew a sketch of the crescent-shaped birthmark on her face.

In much of the country, that is as scientific as cattle identification gets.

Millions of wild salmon have microchips implanted in their bellies so biologists can track the fish as they navigate hydroelectric dams. Veterinarians inject similar microchips into dogs and cats and pet birds.

But until now, the beef industry has never felt much need to keep tabs on each animal.

Responding to last month's discovery of a Holstein infected with mad cow disease, Agriculture Secretary Ann M. Veneman has called for a national livestock identification system. Several promising technologies are being tested around the nation, including one on Watson's ranch in southwest Kentucky.

Some beef ranchers resent the high-tech chips and sensors as too expensive and even too precise - they're not sure they want consumers to know which farm produced which steak.

Many others, however, share federal officials' hopes that a national identification program will allow them to control disease outbreaks, limit economic losses - and help them run their ranches more efficiently.

Now, cattle often are shuttled anonymously through three or four owners before they reach the slaughterhouse. Little, if any, paperwork identifies each animal individually.

That is why it took federal veterinarians six days to find the infected Holstein's birth farm in Canada. They still have not located more than a dozen dairy cows from its birth herd. And, unable to identify the infected Holstein's offspring, they euthanized hundreds of calves to be sure they got the right one.

Since then, "Everyone's getting more and more used to the idea of having to go to a national ID system," said Bim Nelson, a cattle auctioneer in Bassett, Neb. He still prefers the old-fashioned way of marking a cow, by branding it on the rump with a red-hot iron. But since the mad cow scare, he will grudgingly consider going high-tech.

The Department of Agriculture plan calls for tagging all 105 million U.S. cattle with the bovine equivalent of a Social Security number - an electronic code that would stay with the animal as it moves from ranch to feedlot, from state to state, from birth to slaughter. Canada and European Union countries use that type of system.

In Kentucky, the state and the beef industry have put up $4 million each for a pilot program using radio-frequency tags, known as RFIDs. They look like thick buttons punched through the cow's ear; each emits a unique signal that can be scanned with a hand-held wand.

In Colorado, Idaho and Texas, the huge meatpacking firm Swift & Co. plans to begin identifying its cattle with retinal scans, which measure the one-of-a-kind pattern of blood vessels at the back of the eye.

From Minnesota to Mississippi, inventors are promoting all manner of livestock tracking technology, from implanted microchips to sensors that can be linked by satellite to the global positioning network. The stock of companies offering such devices, including Digital Angel and Advanced ID Corp., has soared in the past two weeks.

A U.S. Department of Agriculture task force estimates that a high-tech identification program would cost $600 million to launch and $100 million a year to maintain. For ranchers, that could get expensive; electronic scanners and scales can cost thousands of dollars. For consumers, though, the cost should be negligible, just pennies per pound of beef.

The technology has astounding potential, both for disease containment and for industry efficiency.

Ranchers who lose track of their cattle when they sell them six months after birth would be able to get reports from the slaughterhouse two years later, telling them that No. 51898 produced the leanest roasts and No. 32400 the most marbled steaks. Ranchers then could adjust breeding programs to emphasize the genetic lines that make the most money.

But there is a certain comfort in the anonymity of the current system. Many ranchers worry that farm-to-plate tracking would leave them vulnerable to consumer lawsuits.

Every year, thousands of Americans are sickened by meat contaminated with E. coli, salmonella, listeria and other pathogens. Most of the contamination occurs in packing plants, restaurants or home kitchens. But with the new tracking system, a diner might be able to find out exactly where the cow that provided his nauseating burger came from.

"Everyone passes the buck, and we're the very last person in the chain," said John Lockie, executive director of a group called R-CALF, which represents 9,000 cattle ranchers.

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