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Friday, January 02, 2004 - Page updated at 02:15 P.M.
Electronic tag system for cattle on fast track
By Kyung M. Song
Such tags, which an industry expert says would cost $5 to $15 apiece, are part of a proposed national animal-identification system that was put on the fast track Tuesday by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). The beef industry had opposed the national tracking system on grounds it could expose farmers and ranchers to lawsuits over tainted food.
But public concern about meat safety and a near-total ban on U.S. beef exports has worn away much of the industry's resistance. Such a tracking system has been mandatory in Canada since 2001, but it took an outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease in Great Britain later that year before some Canadian beef producers began to support it.
Canada's tracking system can tell inspectors each animal's origin almost immediately. However, the Canadian Black Angus cow diagnosed in May with mad-cow disease was born before the system took effect, so its past has not been easy to trace.
The United States relies on a patchwork of state laws and different types of records to trace animals' origins. Livestock are not required to have unique identification. One-third of dairy cows aren't even branded to identify their owners, said Neil Kayser, a cattle rancher in Centerville, Klickitat County, who represents beef producers on the livestock-identification advisory board of the Washington State Department of Agriculture.
Kayser said records are generated every time an animal is bought or sold. But tracing the history of such animals particularly when they have changed hands and moved across state borders can be slow and laborious.
Since Dec. 23, when the USDA said a Holstein in the Yakima Valley was the first mad-cow case on U.S. soil, some 4,500 cattle have remained under quarantine at two locations in Washington.
One herd, at the Sunny Dene Ranch in Mabton, Yakima County, was home to the sick cow and, according to investigators, to nine of 80 others imported with it from Canada in 2001. The second herd is home to one of the sick cow's offspring.
Though it is believed mad-cow disease cannot be transmitted from one live animal to another or from mother to offspring, the herds were quarantined just in case. With the news that some of the cows in the Sunny Dene herd crossed the border with the sick cow, there's more reason for a quarantine. Eating tainted feed is the most likely source of infection, and the cows that crossed the border together may have been fed from the same source.
Wednesday, USDA officials said the other 71 animals were all believed to be in Washington state, and the effort to confirm that was continuing.
However, Ron DeHaven, the USDA's chief veterinarian, said he could not rule out the possibility that the animals had gone to other states.
Each animal would have had a unique ear tag containing information about its birth, owner and current location. The tags would most likely have contained an electronic chip with a radio-frequency transponder that would automatically broadcast the animal's location.
Paul Hitch, owner of Hitch Enterprises, one of the largest feedlots in the nation, said it's likely cattlemen will lobby Congress for federal money to compensate them for their costs.
But Kayser, who said such tags would cost $5 to $15 each, expects beef producers to bear the cost. He estimated it would cost millions of additional dollars to set up and operate a national database.
Kayser estimated he spends $1,000 to raise a beef cow for 18 to 20 months before taking it to slaughter. So $5 to $15 for an identification tag "is not a great cost. But it's a cost," Kayser said.
Information from the Washington Post was included in this report. Kyung Song: 206-464-2423 or email@example.com
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