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Cattle Identification: What Will the Future Hold?

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Posted Mar. 1, 2004

In light of the recent discovery in Washington of a Canadian-born Holstein cow that tested positive for BSE, the need for a national animal identification system has become of paramount importance. In fact, Ron DeHaven, the USDA's chief veterinary officer, spoke at the National Cattlemen's Beef Association convention and said, "The BSE incident underscored the need for a national animal ID system that allows for rapid trace-back."

How the United States will implement a national identification system has not yet been determined. However, the framework is being assembled by the National Identification Development Team. Their draft document is called the United States Animal Identification Plan (USAIP) and can be viewed at www.usaip.com. The executive summary of this plan states: " an industry-state-federal partnership, aided by the National Institute for Animal Agriculture, was formed in 2002 to more uniformly coordinate a national animal identification plan. This resulting plan, requested by the United States Animal Health Association (USAHA) and facilitated by the USDA's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, was formulated in 2003 for presentation at the October 2003 annual meeting of the USAHA. More than 100 animal industry and state-federal government professionals representing more than 70 allied associations and organizations collectively assessed and suggested workable improvements to the plan to meet future US animal identification needs." This team has identified three phases that they recommend in a transition to a national identification system. These phases are:

  • All states have a premises identification system in place by July 2004; unique individual animal or group/lot numbers to be available for issuance by February 2005.
  • All cattle, swine and small ruminants possess individual or group/lot identification for interstate movement by July 2005.
  • All animals of the remaining species/industries (including bison, swine, sheep, goats, camelids (alpacas and llamas), cervids (deer and elk), poultry (eight species including game birds) and aquaculture (eleven species) be in similar compliance by July 2006.


As you can see, work on a national identification system has been ongoing for several years. The urgency from recent occurrences in the cattle industry will likely expedite the implementation.

Understandably, producers have numerous questions and concerns, but many of these concerns cannot be accurately addressed at this time. However, the USAIP Web site has a frequently asked questions section (http://usaip.info/faq.htm) that addresses some issues. Here are a few of the more common questions from the USAIP site:

What are the benefits for producers in adopting the U.S. Animal Identification Plan?
The adoption of a national identification system will help secure the health of the national herd. The program will provide producers and animal health officials with the infrastructure to improve efforts in current disease eradication and control, protect against foreign animal disease outbreaks and provide infrastructure to address threats from deliberate introduction of disease. The industry may integrate the standards and technologies defined in the USAIP with their management systems and performance recording programs. The utilization of the same ID technologies for both regulatory and industry programs allows for the development of a more cost-effective and user-friendly system for the producer. Producers can also benefit from additional animal identification information obtained to improve production efficiencies and add value to their products. However, the information systems are completely separate; production data will not be transmitted to nor maintained in the national identification databases.

Who will pay for the plan?
It is anticipated that the federal government and all industry stakeholders will share in the costs of an identification system.

What forms of identification will be used?
The form of animal identification used is intended to optimize accuracy, promote efficient information transfer and be practical and effective in its application for individual species and/or industries. Species groups will have the choice of designing a system that may or may not use accompanying visible ID. For example, the cattle industry plans to use radio frequency identification (RFID) technology using an eartag attachment. Electronic identification may be necessary for efficient and accurate data collection and animal tracking in some species or in particular animal movement scenarios. Official identification tags will not replace management ear tags unless the species groups establish those options. Ultimately, it is anticipated that technological advances will allow for one tag or ID device that performs multiple functions. Implants (i.e., microchips) may be permitted for certain species in which no other form of ID is suitable and assuming that the implant site has been approved by the FDA and FSIS relative to ease of discovery at slaughter when appropriate.

Where do I get an official ID tag or device?
Currently the distribution mechanism for ID devices is being discussed. It has not been decided where and how a producer can obtain official ID devices at this time. Different species will have different requirements in regards to the type of device that can be used; however, standards in regards to RFID technology and code structure and retention will ensure that various ID devices can be read with RFID readers that meet the same RFID technology standards.

At this point, there is probably not a question as to if the United States will have a national identification system, but more of a question of when and how a national identification system will be implemented. The best advice I can give you at this time is stay tuned, keep informed, offer constructive input and maintain a positive approach to this ongoing process for the good of the entire industry.