updated 6/28/2005 6:32:23 PM ET 2005-06-28T22:32:23

The latest case of mad cow disease has brought new talk of a national livestock tracking system, something the chairman of the House Agriculture Committee says the beef industry can create more quickly than the government.

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The government is still trying to pinpoint the herd of the infected cow, a “downer” that could not walk and was at least 8 years old. The Agriculture Department, which confirmed the new case on Friday , is using DNA analysis because the cow’s breed was mislabeled and its tissues got mixed with parts from other cows.

Rep. Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., said a system to track the movements of the nation’s 96 million cattle needs to be running “as soon as possible.” The government’s goal is to make a system mandatory by January 2009, but Goodlatte said the industry can create a tracking system more swiftly.

“That will get us into an animal identification system much faster than what the USDA is talking about,” he said.

The dominant cattle ranchers’ group, the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, is creating its own identification system. The plan is to test the system starting Oct. 1, then have it up and running by October 2006, said Jay Truitt, lobbyist for the group.

The industry is hoping to persuade the department to use the cattlemen’s system instead of its own. Other groups of livestock producers are also resisting the idea of a mandatory system.

“We definitely do not believe that this should be a top-down operation where folks here in Washington know best how cattle producers should keep track of their cattle,” Goodlatte said. “And we definitely do not believe the government should have control of this information, except when they need it.”

Canada has a tracking system that its livestock industry created, said Goodlatte, who traveled there with a congressional delegation last weekend. He acknowledged that the Canadian government ultimately ordered mandatory participation and said that might need to happen in the U.S.

“With that in place, then you can look at what the government needs to do to make sure that it is comprehensive in nature and works in as many circumstances as possible,” Goodlatte said. “But I think the department is at risk of getting that backwards if they think they should step in and mandate something first, and then see how it works.”

The department wants a system that cattle producers will want too, Agriculture Department spokesman Ed Loyd said. He said officials are open to different ideas.

The department released a “thinking paper” last month saying it envisions mandatory participation in an identification system by 2009.

“It would give us a tool that we don’t have today, and we certainly want to have as many tools as possible to be able to deal with these types of situations,” Loyd said.

The program won’t come cheaply, but Truitt said Tuesday it may not be as expensive as was originally thought. Initial estimates put the cost between $6 million and $10 million, Truitt said, but the cattlemen now think it will be much cheaper. The cost to producers could be as low as 20 cents to 40 cents a head, he said.

Not everyone likes the idea of an industry-run system. “You shouldn’t have profiteering take place on a system that’s for safety purposes,” said Jess Peterson, spokesman for a rival cattle producers’ group, R-CALF United Stockgrowers of America. “You need to have it run through the government.”

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