In the wake of 2003's mad cow scare, the notion of creating a national system to identify, and if necessary, track livestock picked up steam. Supporters say the idea is long overdue, but implementing a national animal identification system makes some wary.

The National Identification Development Team, a U.S. industry consortium with approximately 70 members, devised the U.S. Animal Identification Plan (USAIP) to develop standards and a framework to phase in a national animal identification system in the United States.

Development team co-chairman Robert Fourdraine, also the COO of the Wisconsin Livestock Identification Consortium, said the United States needs to implement a system to trace the whereabouts ofe diseased livestock throughout their lifespan, and must do it quickly.

"That's why the industry's been working on this plan for the past two years -- to get something in place where we can get the answers a lot quicker than we get them right now," he said.

Diseased livestock with the highest profile are typically cattle with bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), known as mad cow disease. BSE is passed to humans who eat meat from a sick cow. Since 1995, the disease's fatal human version has infected 155 people worldwide, according to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

In the event of an outbreak, the USAIP's sole purpose is to give health authorities the ability to trace a diseased cow back to its origin within 48 hours, said Ben Higgins, executive vice president of the California Cattlemen's Association (CCA). A quick tracking time allows federal and state government to rapidly identify and isolate the source.

"The focus of the plan is not necessarily to improve consumer confidence or food safety, but to assist the USDA and state animal health agencies in identifying and eradicating animal disease," Higgins said.

Bovines to the North

Numerous countries already have national ID systems, many of which started with bar-code tags, Fourdraine said.

The Canadian Cattle Identification Agency (CCIA) was developed in 1998 when the country and industry leaders determined the level of identification was at an all-time low, said Julie Stitt, general manager and administrator for the CCIA.

Prior to the CCIA's development, 95 percent of Canada's cows were tagged, and bovine tuberculosis in the country was eradicated, Stitt said.

"After that, they stopped the individual ID tagging program," she said. "At that point, it was a government program, so the level [of identified animals] dropped to 10 percent over 10 years or so. It was an industry-proactive type of initiative. We didn't have a health problem when we started this."

The identification system was implemented to stay ahead of industry demands, according to the CCIA Web site, and the rationale for creating the system was simple: If industry didn't put such a system into place, businesses would lose market share and may well have a system imposed on them from outside.

Soon after its development, the CCIA, which is led by the Canadian cattle industry, started building its database, information system, a communication strategy and trials on the technology. On Jan. 1, 2001, legislation instituted a mandatory national identification system, Stitt said.

In July 2002, the CCIA's program was fully implemented with regulation and enforcement.

"Today we have about 98 to 100 percent compliance of all animals being tagged prior to leaving the herd of origin, with primarily a bar-coded plastic dangle tag," she said. "We are now moving to electronic tags -- radio frequency [identification] tags -- and that's going to happen by 2005."

When the mad cow case occurred in May 2003, Stitt said the CCIA system -- also known as the National Cattle Identification Program -- was immensely useful, and all animals were identified within a few weeks. The Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) was given the histories of 5,000 cows.

Jessica Jones  |  Managing Editor