Chipped Beef

The USDA wants the beef industry to create a system that tracks the nation's cows, but implementation is at a standstill.

by / June 3, 2004
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.

The CCIA also supplied the CFIA with all information on animals that went through the packing plants and also animals that went to the United States. "It was very beneficial to very quickly wrap up their investigation on the trace out," she said. "On the trace back, it was our tag on a progeny of the affected animal that linked them back with the DNA to confirm the herd of origin, so it was extremely instrumental in this case."


Technological Transition
Since 2000, Canada's National Cattle Identification Program has used products from Global Technology Resources (GTR), based in St. Paul, Minn., and though the United States isn't at the same level as Canada, company President and CEO Paul Cheek said nearly all U.S. cattle do sport an ID tag.

"We assign a premise ID to a rancher or farmer, so it starts from that point," he said. "You have a tag on the animal that corresponds back to the premise ID of the farm or ranch, and then that animal is sold at a sale yard. They usually put a back tag on the animal, so you have three readily available identifiers to tie the animal to its point of origin, and you can follow that throughout the system."

There are two main types of tags: bar code, which is the traditional tag, and radio frequency identification (RFID) tags, which are the most likely option for a national ID program, Cheek said.

It takes nearly two weeks to identify and gather information on diseased cows with bar-code tags, but moving to RFID technology will reduce that time to 48 hours, he said. The RFID tags are scanned into a reader and allow officials to follow the animal from point to point in a supply chain, he said.

In comparison, the National Identification Development Team's Fourdraine said information from bar-code tags must be scanned or punched into a computer manually.

The slaughter facility is the most critical point in the tracking process. Upon being slaughtered, a cow's different parts are put in various bins -- cow A's right shoulder could be tossed in bin No. 1, while its left thigh is tossed in bin No. 5 -- and tracking means knowing which parts are in what bin. GTR uses a proprietary algorithm to track individual pieces of meat.

"It took us almost 17 months to get our patent internally to develop this system where we could track individual cuts of meat, as well as hamburger meat," Cheek said, adding that tracking the cows specified for hamburger meat is critical, because anywhere from 50 to 60 cows are combined in each hamburger bin. The grinding operation is another critical step, he said, because it's where the blend takes place.

"You may have lean beef trim from older animals, and then beef scraps from feedlot animals from the Midwest blended together," he said. "Or you may have product in Australia, so you've got to tie all that together within that supply chain."

After cows are slaughtered and ground, GTR can also track time and temperature, and has GPS units to track beef distribution to an individual location, whether that's a fast food place like Wendy's, McDonald's or Burger King, or a supermarket chain, Cheek said.


Tracking Apprehension
Though GTR tracks meat as far as a restaurant or supermarket, the National Identification Development Team is only tracking to the point of slaughterhouse inspection, Fourdraine said.

"We've never said we're going to track to the package on the shelf," he said. "We're not taking it as far as where the animal is inspected in the processing facility. If you want to go beyond that, those numbers aren't included in the funding estimate and aren't part of our effort of the last two years."

The USAIP's preliminary cost estimate for a tracking system is $500 million to $600 million, Fourdraine said, adding that the numbers can change depending on devices and technology used, but is based on RFID technology.

"I'm not saying that's what we're going to get," he said. "That's what we came up with for a preliminary cost estimate."

The development team requested funding in 2003, and is asking for $33 million from Congress for fiscal 2005. It is also looking to receive money from the Commodity Credit Corp. (CCC). Fourdraine said this implementation is not likely to raise the price of beef.

Though the fiscal 2005 budget contains $33 million to assist with USAIP implementation, more funding is needed, said the CCA's Higgins.

"As an industry, we have many concerns about any national animal identification system, and feel there are many obstacles the USDA and state animal health agencies must overcome before any such system is practical," Higgins said. "With 95 million cattle in this country, RFID ear tags for these animals alone will cost more than $100 million. It is imperative that adequate funding be made continuously available to assist producers, auction market owners, feedlot owners and state animal health agencies with implementation of the USAIP."

Policies to protect the privacy and rights of individual livestock producers must also be created, Higgins said, adding that the complexity of implementing a national animal ID system is evidenced by the 1.03 million cattle producers and approximately 900,000 cow/calf producers across the United States in 2003.

"We do not feel many behind this plan have a functional knowledge of Western beef cattle production," he said.

Mark Lacey, who ranches in Bridgeport Valley, Calif., said the 48-hour identification goal is commendable, but may not be probable under large-range grazing circumstances, adding that some cattle are turned out on 50,000 acre allotments and would be extremely difficult, if not impossible, to find unless the entire allotment is gathered.

It is important, Lacey said, to impress upon people the scale of these operations in the West.

"Many people think of dairies or little farms in the Midwest or the East with 10 or 20 cows, and they all have names," he said. "But in the West, we see every cow only twice a year for branding and weaning. Even then, we may not see them all."

Also, the RFID tags have visible numbers on them, but the tags are the size of a half dollar, and the number is extremely small, Lacey said.

"You can't visually ID a cow you are looking for unless you rope her, or catch her in a squeeze chute so you can look at the tag," he said. "The same goes for reading it electronically. You have to get within 6 inches, so you might have to rope or catch 500 cows in order to find that cow."

But Cheek said automatic identification data collection (AIDC) facilitates rather than hinders on the ranch -- and depending on frequency, antenna design and power, RFID can go from close contact to several hundred feet.

"RFID technology is based on physics, wireless technology/communications theory and can be tailored based on the business process one is trying to solve," he said. "The current ISO [International Organization for Standardization] standard on animal tracking is relatively short-range -- approximately 12 inches."

GTR, however, is analyzing the problem and selecting the correct AIDC enablers. Small active RFID tags allow "real-time locating" of animals by pinpointing a specific animal's location to within approximately 10 to 15 feet, Cheek said. The Department of Defense is using this technology to locate aircraft parts over several square miles.

"If the rancher wants to locate a specific cow, I recommend an active RFID solution," he said. "The goal of GTR is to rapidly and accurately associate a given animal with birth record [and] feed lot as it processes into the slaughter facility. By having a registration using RFID or bar-code AIDC media, the animal can be tracked from ranch to sales, to feed lot, county of origin and into the slaughterhouse."

RFID can be placed inside a cow's stomach, which is an ISO standard, or on its ear. It can also be injected under the animal's skin, but the stomach RFID tag is the only one that cannot be pulled off or replaced easily by an unscrupulous individual. The read distances on all are approximately the same.


What's Next?
Though the United States is still working to get a national tracking system in place, Canada is enhancing its system, said the CCIA's Stitt.

"We're adding geographical information systems, zoning capabilities and birth date records to the database," she said. "The whole system was built very scalable, so we can add onto it at any point."

Adding GIS is in the works, Stitt said, and the CCIA has a template to incorporate the information. Different initiatives going on throughout Canada must be brought together so information can be accessed in the most practical way during an animal health emergency, she said.

As far as the United States is concerned, there's still work to be done, Fourdraine said.

"It's going to take the effort of many entities, and there will be opportunities for many entities to play a role in this thing," he said. "We have to get it off the ground at some point. Hopefully if the funding becomes available, we can get started this year."
Jessica Jones Managing Editor