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Animal Identification: Overview and Issues

by 5m Editor
3 May 2007, at 9:57am

US - Livestock industry groups, animal health officials, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) have been working to establish a nationwide identification (ID) system capable of quickly tracking animals from birth to slaughter, in order to combat a serious animal disease and/or to satisfy foreign market specifications. Some consumer groups are among those who believe ID also would be useful for food safety or retail labeling purposes. Some producers oppose new programs, fearing they will be costly and intrusive. In the 110th Congress as of April 2007, one related bill (H.R. 1018) had been introduced; it would prohibit a mandatory program. Lawmakers could be asked to consider this or other measures on the topic, possibly as part of a 2007 farm bill.

What Is Animal ID and Why Is It Used?

Animal ID refers to keeping records on farm animals or groups (e.g., flocks; herds) so that they can be more easily tracked from birth to slaughter. Use of animal ID dates back at least to the 1800s, when hot iron brands were used throughout the U.S. West to indicate ownership. ID methods today include ear, back, and tail tags; neck chains, freeze (as opposed to hot iron) brands, and leg bands. Some producers use radio frequency ID transponders with information that is read by scanners and fed into computer databases. The reasons for identifying and tracking animals and their products also have evolved.

Animal Health. Animal ID can help to identify the source of dangerous and costly animal diseases and to contain them. In the global marketplace, animal disease programs, aided by traceability systems, are used both to reassure buyers about the health of U.S. animals and to satisfy foreign veterinary and/or food safety requirements. USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) oversees animal health in consultation with state veterinary authorities, and some of its disease eradication and control efforts effectively require ID and tracking. For example, for brucellosis, a highly contagious and costly disease mainly affecting cattle, bison, and swine (once common here), uniquely numbered brucellosis ID tags were routinely attached to animals, which noted that they had been vaccinated or tested. Today, however, brucellosis has largely been eradicated from U.S. commercial herds, so such ID is no longer widespread. Examples of other official disease programs include pseudorabies in swine and scrapie in sheep, where swine and sheep, respectively, must be officially identified before entering interstate commerce. Often state laws or breed association rules require animals of these and other species, like cattle and horses, to be identified to participate in shows or races.

Still, no universal system captures the locations and movements of all farm animals across all states. The existing programs, even where mandated by a state or other entity, are not designed to work in concert with one another, slowing disease response times and/or leaving informational gaps, according to USDA. U.S. limitations were demonstrated after bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE, or mad cow disease) was discovered in the United States (in a Canadian-born dairy cow) in December 2003. A number of trading partners that had quickly closed their borders to U.S. beef reportedly were reluctant to reopen them, due in part to U.S. difficulties in tracing the whereabouts of other cattle that had entered the United States with the BSE-infected cow; similar difficulties arose in determining the whereabouts and/or herdmates of the two later U.S.- born BSE cases.1

Commercial Production and Marketing. Many farmers and ranchers already keep track of individual animals and how they are being raised, in order to identify and exploit desirable production characteristics. Universal bar codes on processed food, including many meats, are widely used by processors and retailers to manage inventories, add value to products, and monitor consumer buying. When consumers seek meat, eggs, or milk from animals raised according to specified organic, humane treatment, or environmental standards, ID and traceability can help firms verify production methods.

Government-coordinated programs also have been established for these purposes. For example, a process verification program operated by USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS) “provides livestock and meat producers an opportunity to assure customers of their ability to provide consistent quality products by having their written manufacturing processes confirmed through independent, third party audits,” according to AMS. USDA “Process Verified” suppliers can have marketing claims such as breeds and feeding practices, and so label them, under this voluntary, fee-for-service program.

After BSE appeared in North America in 2003, AMS developed an export verification (EV) program for U.S. plants seeking to meet the differing beef import specifications of various countries like Japan, once the number-one foreign market for U.S. beef. AMS establishes the standards that U.S. suppliers must follow if they want to ship beef to these countries, and certifies that the proper procedures are in place. While EV is “voluntary,” it is also a prerequisite for access to the Japanese and other foreign markets. Other programs employing varying levels and types of traceability include the domestic origin requirement for USDA-purchased commodities used in domestic feeding programs; and the national organic certification program, which AMS also oversees.2

Food Safety. Federal and state food safety agencies collaborate with APHIS to protect the food supply from the introduction, through animals, of threats to human health, such as tuberculosis; and foodborne illnesses from bacteria like Salmonella and E. coli O157:H7. Generally, when local health officials can link an illness to a particular product, firms and their regulators have been able to trace that product back to the processor and/or slaughter facility. It is more difficult and costly to determine which particular animals, herds, or flocks were involved. Some believe that a more rigorous traceback and animal ID system could facilitate food recalls, possibly contain the spread of a foodborne illness, and help authorities stem future incidents. Others, particularly many within the food industry, strongly disagree, countering that such a system would not be based on sound science, and would be technically unworkable and extremely costly.3

To read the rest of this CRS report for Congress, click here.

5m Editor