(Host) A case of mad cow disease in Washington state has focused attention on the difficulty that investigators face in tracing cattle across the country. A Vermont organization has one solution: a national cattle identification system that allows researchers to accurately follow an animal its entire life.
VPR’s John Dillon reports:
(Host) The Holstein Association in Brattleboro, Vermont is best known for its extensive registry of black and white dairy cows. But the association has also developed a separate, national identification program for all cattle, not just purebred dairy cows.
John Meyer, the CEO of the non-profit association, says the system works by assigning each animal an individual ID number, much like a Social Security number. The animal is then tracked through a radio tag placed in its ear right after birth.
(Meyer) “So what that allows us to do is track that animal from birth to its death, or birth to slaughter. Additionally, it gives us the ability to track that animal’s movement from farm to farm and then ultimately track any animal it may have been in contact with. If a program like that had been in place in this country nationally today, we wouldn’t be having the difficulty in trace-back that’s going on in Washington state as we speak.”
(Dillon) Just under one million cattle around the country are registered through the Farm Animal Identification and Records system. But that’s a tiny percentage of the 104 million cattle in the United States, and the 35 million that are slaughtered each year.
John Stauber is a Wisconsin writer and co-author of Mad Cow USA. Stauber’s book, published in 1997, predicted a mad cow outbreak in this country. He says the lack of a national identification system is one of many problems in this country’s food safety regulations.
(Stauber) “The countries that have had mad cow disease, Britain and the European countries are in the forefront of fixing the problem and of setting up tracking systems for their cattle. The United States lags way, way behind in all areas.”
(Dillon) More than 15 countries suspended imports of U.S. beef last week. Meyer from the Holstein Association says the government has to mandate the identification program for it to be effective. He says that the cost of the national ID system is minimal, and is an essential step if the U.S. wants to maintain a world market in beef.
(Meyer) “In order for us to have market access for our beef products abroad, I think that a national animal ID program is going to be necessary for each and every animal. And in order for any animal to leave the farm, it has to have appropriate identification.”
(Dillon) Besides the lack of a national tracking system for cattle, the U.S. also tests far fewer animals for mad cow disease than other countries. But Meyer says the food supply remains safe, and that a person’s chance of getting mad cow disease is extremely low.
For Vermont Public Radio, I’m John Dillon.