RealTime IT News

'Mad' Scramble for Electronic Livestock Tracking

The U.S. livestock industry doesn't operate on Internet time. But if ever an enterprise cried out for real-time information, it's this one.

Since the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) identified the country's first case of bovine spongiform encephalopathy -- the dreaded mad cow disease -- in a cow in Washington state, sales of U.S. beef have been banned in over 30 countries.

When that BSE-stricken cow arrived at the slaughterhouse on Dec. 9, she was a downer, so sick she couldn't walk. She just happened to be tested as part of the USDA's BSE surveillance system, which doesn't require testing of all downed animals. The test came back positive on Dec. 23, with the cow long turned into package meat in supermarket coolers. (According to the latest scientific theories, only the brain and spinal cord tissue carry BSE, but the USDA recalled all 20 of the carcasses that plant produced that day, some 10,000 pounds of meat.)

By December 22, the USDA had decided that the infected cow was "likely" imported from Canada; but all information about the animal was called into question by the discovery that the last owner's records were wrong about her age. (He later dug up additional records, which correlated better.) By December 29, the government still was not sure it had identified the cow correctly, nor could it be sure exactly how many other cows were in the same shipment. Time is wasting.

Now, USDA officials say they want the beef industry to fast-track its adoption plans for a national identification system of tracking cattle from birth to slaughter and beyond. The industry could end up adopting a system similar to the Canadian Cattle Identification Program adopted by its northern neighbor, which uses Radio Frequency Identification technology.

Given the USDA's new urgency, it's no surprise that RFID vendors are crying out that they have the solution for tagging and tracking the livestock.

Advanced ID , a Calgary, Canada-based company registered in the U.S., makes a variety of RFID systems. It offers PETtrack, a pet identification system composed of tags, scanners and a database, and its about to start a large scale test of its higher-frequency read/write tags on cattle in Argentina, which suffered a recent outbreak of hoof-and-mouth disease.

"The initial tracking number is hard-wired at manufacture," said Barry Bennett, the company's president. "As you go along, you can add information and either lock it or write over it." The tags store up to 1,000 bytes of data.

Other companies offer RFID technology combined with biosensors and global positioning technology in meat safety systems. Digital Angel, a majority-owned subsidiary of Applied Digital Solutions , said its implantable RFID chip measures an animal's body temperature, which can help identify one that's sick.

The St. Paul, Minn.-based company's products have been deployed in Canada's National Cattle Identification Program since 2000, and the company claims that its system can isolate a suspected animal and pinpoint its source of origin and all subsequent movements within 48 hours.

Global Technology Resources (GTR), a Starkville, Miss. company, claims it can whittle that time frame down to 15 minutes for one person using its Web-based tracking system. The company says it has customized a biosensor that provides early detection of foreign-born pathogens. Combined with RFID technology, it can detect and report irregularities quickly -- before the contaminated flesh is commingled with that of healthy cows.

"We can take a cow from the farm to the sale yard, to slaughter and grinding, out to the end user," said Global Technology Resources President Paul Cheek. A demonstration of the system revealed details of individual shipments including the name of the truck driver, license plate of the truck and when delivery was taken.

Cheek was sketchy on details of the process because the company's patent applications are in review. Nor could he divulge the name of a major U.S. food processor that has tested the system. The company recently formed a strategic alliance with Ernst & Young's global investigation and dispute practice, in which the consultants will resell and install GTR's systems.

Cheek said use of his company's system might add less than a penny to the cost of a pound of beef, depending on volume. Meanwhile, the additional information can be used to increase efficiency, while the producer may be able to charge a premium for meat that is guaranteed to be untainted. If contamination does occur, the amount recalled may be just hundreds of pounds of beef rather than millions.

Although the U.S. meat industry has been working with the USDA on a national livestock ID policy since April 2002, concerns among industry producers over the cost to implement the system and potential liability have slowed its progress.

As of October 2003, the National Identification Development Team, a U.S. industry consortium with around 70 members, had set a standard of 48 hours for tracing an animal back to its origin, and identified key data elements: a uniform premises ID system, a national numbering system for individual animals and another national numbering system for lots or groups of animals. Prior to the mad cow case, the task force proposed using either physical tags or RFID tags, with a target date of 2006 for electronic tracking of all livestock movement.

"This is not something that just happened since last week," said Robert Fourdraine, COO of the Wisconsin Livestock Identification Consortium and co-chair of the national task force.

"That plan is a solid foundation for this country to get the answers we're looking for. But funding has to be made available." The task force estimates it will cost $500 to $600 million to create the infrastructure. That includes creating the national database of producer locations, figuring out where to locate RFID readers and installing them, providing handheld readers and the purchase of some tags. The sum does not include the ranchers' labor of tagging the animals.

Beyond the question of funding for its technology upgrade, the cattle industry has to figure out how the millions of local producers will be incorporated into a national ID system. In GTR's system, for example, not only every slaughterhouse, but every cattle bin needs a unique identifier.

And in the messy world of livestock production, that's not so easy, according to John Maas, a rancher and veterinarian at the University of California at Davis. "Cows aren't raised in a box," he said. "These animals are moving." He said that depending on how tightly the USDA wanted to define the premises on which the animal is raised, it might be extremely difficult to locate fixed scanners.

Maas said he worries about the integrity of the database and about liability for the original owner of an animal. For example, if he sells a cow and it escapes through its new owner's fence and gets hit by a car, could the driver sue him for damages, just as gunshot victims are suing gun manufacturers? "This is a question that must be answered to the satisfaction of the cattle industry before we agree to any program, in my opinion," he said.

"The technology is fantastic," Maas added. "You look at the problem and say, 'This is so easy to fix.' But the problem is the cost and the infrastructure to do what technology would allow us to do."