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Mary Jo Wagner

November 19, 2001

Those worried about food safety say it’s time for a uniform animal identification system, one that could rapidly isolate animals suspected of carrying contagious diseases. Wisconsin AG officials have taken the lead on this type of preventive action but will need the help of all the Great Lakes States to make it work. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Mary Jo Wagner has more.

There’s growing consensus among agricultural officials that some type of universal animal identifier is needed to trace animals from birth to the marketplace. Especially in light of recent occurrences of “mad cow” and “foot and mouth” diseases in live animals overseas and the nasty form of e coli in meat products here. Wisconsin secretary of agriculture, Jim Harsdorf says the ID system started in Europe. Now it’s moved to Canada, where it’s mandatory, and Harsdorf says Holland has a central database containing information on all the nation’s animals.

"It’s housed in one location and the producers within 48 hours have an animal ID’d after it’s born and that animal ID stays with it for life.”

Federal officials in the United States have been slow to implement such a system though, so Harsdorf says state officials are working to come up with one. It might be tied to different identification networks that farmers already use to keep production and reproduction records, herd health, vaccinations and the location of cattle that are sold, or it could be a totally new system that keeps some or all of those records on one central computer database managed by state, private or non-profit organizations.

Wisconsin state veterinarian Clarence Siroky says public feedback surprised them. State officials were expecting farmers to want only a voluntary system but what they found at public meetings was that producers want a more comprehensive mandatory system nationwide

"We move cattle all over the United States rapidly…we can have one cow at least touch 27 other states within a week…one pig can touch 19 other states within 24 hours.”

For those reasons, Siroky says, all animals will have to be included, not only cows, but sheep, horses and pigs. In England for example, cows are identified, but sheep are not, and he says sheep were implicated in the rapid spread of foot and mouth disease there.

That concerns Ted Johnson. He’s a Wisconsin dairy farmer who likes the idea of a universal identification system because it would quickly pinpoint the location of animals that might have come in contact with a disease.

“If in the event of an outbreak of some highly contagious disease, it could be stopped very quickly and we wouldn’t have to have wholesale slaughtering of cattle.”

Still Johnson says many farmers are concerned about how much the ID would cost, who would maintain the records, and who would have access to them.

“The worst case scenario would be if that information is released and there is some doubt about the information or if the information is used in an incorrect manner, the perception can be there’s a problem on individual farms.”

State veterinarian Clarence Siroky says that’s why input from farmers, processors, privacy advocates and consumers is important as the technology is developing.

Still to be decided is the type of animal ID that would be used. Siroky says it could be a tag placed on the animal’s ear. However, some animals already have so many different ear tags, he says one ear can look like a Christmas tree. Other possibilities include a computer chip or other type of recyclables monitor placed inside an animal.

Meanwhile, AG secretary Harsdorf says the records included in a computerized type of system could be very beneficial to consumers at the supermarket.

“At some point in time, you’re gonna have the ability to go through a grocery store and see up on a screen when you buy that package where it came from, a picture of the operation -- it’s almost mind boggling to see what could happen down the road.”

Still, farmer Ted Johnson worries all the talk right now about the need for animal identification might create a consumer backlash.

“I feel as a producer our food supply is very safe. I don’t want the perception to be that an animal ID program is being instituted because we have a problem.”

But a potential problem without plans to deal with it could create havoc for the agricultural industry, and so far veterinarian Siroky doesn’t know when a system with wide support might be in place. He does say animal health officials are on high alert for the appearance of any contagious diseases. At the same time, he says even if Wisconsin comes up with a proactive plan, unless other states adopt a similar identification method, any tracking system would have limited effectiveness. For the Great Lakes Radio Consortium, I’m Mary Jo Wagner.

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