COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. -- A government-led program to develop a national system capable of tracking animals in the food supply in an emergency is likely to be finalized by May and begin implementation this summer.
Designed to bolster the confidence of consumers as well as foreign importers in the U.S. food supply, the program -- called the U.S. Animal Identification Plan (USAIP) -- would enable federal and state authorities to locate animals within 48 hours. It gained new attention in December in the wake of the first case in the U.S. of mad cow disease (bovine spongiform encephalopathy, or BSE), discovered in a cow in Washington state.
Referring to the USAIP, Agriculture Secretary Ann M. Veneman said on Dec. 30 that the U.S. Department of Agriculture "will begin immediate implementation of a verifiable system of national animal identification," though the first phase of the plan is not scheduled to begin till this July. The USDA's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service is working on the plan.
The USAIP, under development since 2002, would provide a national framework for using RFID (radio frequency identification) tagging technology to trace the movement of animals from farm to slaughterhouse, but not into the retail supply chain. It would be implemented by federal and state agencies along with beef producers
In the current mad cow case, the plan could help federal agencies trace up to 81 cows from the same Canadian farm the infected cow is believed to be from; as of last week about 10 of the animals had been located. Producers could also incorporate the ID system into their internal record systems.
Though not directly involved, the Food Marketing Institute, Washington, has been watching the program's development, said John Block, FMI's president, wholesale division. "FMI sees it as a benefit to isolate the individual animal and deal with it faster," he told SN. "Cattlemen have warmed up to the idea, especially since the mad cow incident in Canada. This [latest incident of mad cow] adds more urgency to it."
The group overseeing the USAIP, the National Animal Identification Team, composed of federal, state and private-industry representatives, is seeking outside comment on the plan through the end of January. Scott Stuart, president of the National Livestock Producers Association here and co-chair of the USAIP communications subcommittee, told SN that input from retailers is welcome. Comments may be submitted online at www.usaip.info, faxed to (719) 538-8847 or mailed to USAIP Comments, 660 Southpointe Court, Suite 314, Colorado Springs, CO 80906.
Stuart said the intent of the plan was to develop "a good tracking system to ensure the health of animals and protect export markets desirous of source-verified products." Several countries banned U.S. meat exports following the mad cow discovery in December. He said the plan would also help bolster consumer confidence in the safety of the food supply.
So far, the National Animal Identification Team has not stipulated that compliance to the final plan be made mandatory for animal producers, said Stuart. "However, we certainly would want full compliance for tracking and ID to make the system accepted worldwide."
Dale A. Blasi, professor and extension beef specialist, Kansas State University, Manhattan, Kan., said it was "my understanding" that the USAIP plan will become mandatory "once finalized." Blasi works on electronic animal identification.
In addition to beef and dairy cattle, the USAIP will apply to other animal species in and out of the food supply, including bison, swine, sheep, goats, camelids (alpacas and llamas), horses, cervids (deer and elk), poultry and aquaculture.
The current timetable for the USAIP is as follows: states will have ID numbers for farms and other premises that handle animals by July of this year; cattle, swine and "small ruminants" will have individual or group ID numbers, contained in RFID ear tags, by July 2005; other species will be in compliance by July 2006. In addition, processing plants and markets will need to be retrofitted with technology such as RFID tag readers.
Stuart said that the "target date" for final plans and specifications on the USAIP (for cattle and swine) is May 18 to 20, the tentative date of an ID Info Expo in Chicago being organized by the National Institute for Animal Agriculture.
While observers say that the December mad cow incident is helping to accelerate adoption of the USAIP, Stuart said the National Animal ID Team was "already working hard on this with an aggressive time line that we're sticking with." Funding issues, however, could slow it down, he acknowledged.
According to Stuart, it is assumed that the costs of the project will be shared by government and industry. Infrastructure requirements, such as readers and databases, would be covered by the government, while tagging would be an industry expense, he said. Blasi estimates the cost of tags at around $2 apiece and the cost of tag readers at about $400.
Stuart noted that costs could be offset by "enhanced consumer confidence" and the maintenance of foreign markets. Block said the implementation of the program would "not be costly" for food retailers.