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Can RFID Save the Cattle Industry?

RFID holds the promise of enabling governments to trace livestock and control the outbreak of diseases, but there are challenges to deploying the technology within the industry.
By Bob Violino
Jul 18, 2004—By Jonathan Collins

On Dec. 23, 2003, the U.S. government announced that bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) had been found in a six-year-old dairy cow in Mabton, Wash. It was the first case of so-called mad cow disease in the United States, and given that 141 people died in the United Kingdom in the mid-1990s from Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (CJD), which is transmitted through BSE-infected beef, it’s no surprise that the reaction to the news was swift and painful. More than 50 countries accounting for 95 percent of U.S. beef exports closed their markets to U.S. beef indefinitely. Prices for live U.S. cattle fell from 96 cents per pound to 80 cents within a week of the discovery.

There were also concerns about the long-term impact on the industry. In Europe, beef consumption dropped nearly 30 percent a decade ago after the BSE scare and has never recovered. To prevent that from happening in the United States, the government wanted to take immediate steps to reassure consumers by tracking the history of the infected cow and isolating other animals that might also have the disease to prevent its spread. But that proved more difficult and time consuming than many in the industry would have liked.

It took two weeks for federal officials to complete the DNA tests on the infected dairy cow, which confirmed that it had come from Alberta, Canada. U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) officials had to wade through a mound of paper records and other data maintained by breeders and meat packers to trace and recall beef that may have been exposed to tissue from the infected cow. In a bid to prevent the spread of mad cow disease, the USDA ordered the destruction of a herd of nearly 450 Holstein calves, because there was no way to identify which individual animals within the herd were the offspring of the infected animal.

At press time, only 27 of the 80 animals traced back to the infected cow’s original herd in Canada have been found, and although each of those animals tested negative, concern remains that the other animals that have not been traced could enter the food chain. So far, only Poland has lifted the ban on U.S. beef, though Mexico and Canada are accepting some cuts of beef. Prices have climbed back to about 90 cents per pound. But if a person in the United States were to get CJD from eating tainted beef, the consequences for the cattle and beef industry would be catastrophic.

Clearly, there has to be a way to trace diseased animals. RFID has long been used as a means of identifying farm animals and collecting data far more quickly and efficiently than can be done by writing down numbers by hand or scanning a bar code on a plastic or metal tag in an animal’s ear. Many government agencies around the world are in favor of RFID, because it would enable them to link a unique identification number for each animal to a database that includes information specific to that animal, including date of birth, sex and species (see Cattle-Tagging Technology).
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