Animal ID program offers help for government agencies

Instituting the first phase of a proposed national animal identification program would provide a useful tool for the Texas Animal Health Commission.

“But we hear a lot of misconceptions about the program,” says Kenny Edgar, Animal Identification Program coordinator for the commission.

Kenny discussed the program and concerns of livestock producers at a Dispute Resolution System mediator training session at Salado, Texas.

“We hear a lot of opinions and about 95 percent are unfavorable,” Edgar said. “The program was started to help ensure livestock health across the United States.”

The program, if it ever becomes mandatory, would be initiated in three phases.

“The first phase is simply registration of farms and ranches. We get a name and address where livestock are held and a phone number. We don’t want Social Security numbers or the number of livestock on the premises. We do need to identify the animal species — poultry, cattle, sheep, etc.,” he said.

“A lot of farmers and ranchers are hesitant because they don’t want the government to have access to their information.”

Texas law prohibits using the Open Records Act to get information about participants in the program.

Edgar said 33,000 Texas farms or ranches have signed up since 2004. “We anticipate 200,000. It’s a voluntary program and there is no cost.”

He said the first phase would help the state if an animal disease epidemic ever hit. Without this program inspectors would have to go door-to-door to determine if residents owned livestock. With a premise registration, the computer shows every site with specific livestock types within a specified area.

He said that information would allow the state to inform neighbors that an outbreak had occurred in the vicinity and would help establish a quarantine zone, if necessary. “Premises registration would help us stop the spread of the disease quickly,” Edgar said.

Phase two, a more controversial initiative, would require identification tags that could be scanned, “like a FedEx package. Each animal would have a unique number. A lot of people are already doing it.”

The identification device is not like the typical floppy ear tag but a Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) tag with a chip inside, surrounded by a copper wire/antenna. It has no battery and will “last forever.” A scanning device within a few feet of the tag will record the tag number.

“With a large concentration of animals the RFID tag allows officials to identify a lot of animals quickly without having to catch them individually to read the tags. They can run cattle down an alley and identify every animal rapidly.”

He said the electronic ID tag would help track animals that may have come in contact with a diseased animal at a sales barn or anywhere large numbers of livestock are congregated. “Phase three helps record movements of animals. If folks at the sale recognize a downer cow, for instance, they may not be able to identify the cause for several days. By that time, cattle are scattered all over.”

With the identification tag, they could identify all the animals that came into contact with the suspected diseased animal and track where they went from the sale. “This would save a tremendous amount of work required to track diseased animals,” Edgar said.

“Now, all we have are paper tags stuck to the animal. We can track sale barn animals, but it’s very slow and not reliable.” He said the goal is to find animals within 48 hours of identifying a problem. “We would know where the suspect animal came from and what animals it contacted.”

He said the Texas Animal Health Commission is always cautious about potential spread of something like hoof and mouth disease. “That could be devastating.”

Livestock owners are skeptical. “Some fear that the tag could be read from space” and anyone could keep an eye on their animals. “That’s not possible.”

Cattle get tags only when they are sold.

“People also wonder how we would tag a small animal, like a chicken. We wouldn’t. With chickens, we would identify them in large lots and each lot would be assigned a number.”

He said horses are not the primary concern of the program, but if it ever becomes mandatory, they probably would be included. He said horse identification likely would be with implanted chips.

Those chips would not work on cattle and sheep because chips “tend to move around a lot. And they would have to be found and removed before slaughter because FDA considers a chip foreign material.”

Edgar said the tags would cost about $2 each, an expense that would be borne by the producer, another bone of contention. “Cost could come down when they are mass produced."

He said states can make the animal identification program mandatory, but the voluntary program currently in effect is administered through USDA. He said some Washington, D.C. legislators would like to see the program become mandatory. “Texas will not make it mandatory unless required to by USDA,” he said.

He said possible disputes could come from the cost of the tags, the cost of labor to insert the tags and fear of information leaks.

He also noted advantages livestock producers could see from RFID tags. “With purebred herds, tags could be linked to computer records to show vaccination dates and other data. Dairy cows could have tags linked to daily production. It could be a good tool for record keeping.”

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TAGS: Livestock
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