Where now, brown cow?

Where now, brown cow?

Copyright 2004, Traffic World, Inc.

Spurred by the threat of mad cow disease, the U.S. Department of Agriculture plans to use radio frequency identification technology to track millions of animals in transport from "farm to fork."

The Dec. 23 discovery of bovine spongiform encephalitis in a slaughtered cow in Washington adds urgency to the government''s plans to identify and track animals in the food chain. The U.S. Animal Identification Plan, which aims to track everything from pigs to alpacas, already includes the use of RFID tags on cattle by 2006, "contingent on adequate funding to support the introduction of RFID tags."

Secretary of Agriculture Ann M. Veneman wants that system in place as quickly as possible. "I have asked USDA''s Chief Information Officer to make it a top priority to develop the technology architecture necessary to implement an effective and verifiable system throughout the country," Veneman said at a Jan. 21 House Agriculture Committee hearing.

Other countries, including Australia and Canada, already use RFID to track cattle (the use of RFID tags became mandatory in Canada Jan. 5). The major obstacle in the United States is the size of the market, the cost of the technology to ranchers and the lack of a central database. Some meat producers have resisted the development of a central cattle database with competitors.

Attempts to track down the cows imported from Canada along with the diseased animal illustrate just how hard cattle tracking can be. Out of a group of 81 cattle, only 23 had been located and identified by Jan. 21.