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Mad cow spurs interest in food tracking

The discovery of mad cow disease in the United States has set off a scramble among companies hoping to cash in on growing demand for a system that would make it easier to track livestock from conception to consumption.
First Case Of Mad Cow Disease Confirmed In Washington State
Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman supports a plan that would require commercial livestock to be assigned unique identifying numbers that would be entered in a national database.Justin Sullivan / Getty Images file
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The discovery of mad cow disease in the United States has set off a scramble among companies hoping to cash in on growing demand for a system that would make it easier to track livestock from conception to consumption.

Rising concerns about corporate legal liability and the potential for bioterrorism are two of the prime factors fueling the race to develop systems that would make it easier to trace the origin of every burger, banana and bacon slice sold in stores or consumed in restaurants.

Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman last week voiced support for a national animal identification plan that would allow federal officials to trace back any contaminated food to its source within 48 hours, identifying every stop in an animal’s life cycle. The plan is generally supported by beef producers and packers, although some critics say the currently proposed timetable should be speeded up.

“It’s gone from being a good idea to being something that has to be done as quickly as possible,” said John Meyer, chief executive officer of Holstein Association USA, which runs a pilot program that has registered about 1 million head of beef and dairy cattle, or about 1 percent of the national herd.

“From this point forward every bovine born in the United States should get” a radio transmitter ear tag, allowing it to be traced “from birth to slaughter -- and any movements in between,” he said.

Gaping holes in the current patchwork system used to identify, test and trace diseased livestock and contaminated meat have been plainly exposed by the experiences of the past month.

By the time a positive test for bovine spongiform encephalopathy, or mad cow disease, came back Dec. 23, the former dairy cow from Mabton, Wash., had been slaughtered, its meat processed and shipped to market.

DNA testing this week verified that the Holstein afflicted with the brain-wasting disease was born on a dairy farm in the Canadian province of Alberta. But officials have been unable to track another 70 cattle that were imported at the same time from the same herd in 2001.

And USDA officials this week destroyed 450 bull calves in Washington state because they could not determine which one was the offspring of the cow that tested positive.

Meyer said the Holstein Association, a non-profit based in Brattleboro, Vt., could run a national animal identification system alone or in cooperation with other groups. A draft plan being developed by government and industry officials estimates a national animal identification plan covering cattle, swine and more than a dozen other species of livestock would cost about $540 million over the next five years, offering a potential opportunity for dozens of companies that make ear tags, microchips, tag readers and sophisticated database software.

High-tech animal identification systems also can boost financial returns for farmers managing big herds, proponents say. And they could help restore the confidence of foreign trading partners who have virtually shut down the $3 billion U.S. beef export market

The market opportunity extends beyond livestock even to tracking fruits and vegetables, said Paul Cheek, chief executive officer of Global Technology Resources, in Starkville, Miss. He pointed to an outbreak of hepatitis at restaurants in four states last year that killed three people and infected more than 600. Eventually the outbreak was traced to green onions imported from Mexico.

“It’s a major critical area in terms of liability and litigation to be able to prove where the product came from,” Cheek said. Even without a mandatory national identification program, many larger food retailers are beginning to demand a verifiable trace-back system because of “overwhelming” liability issues, he said.

In addition to legal liability, fears of bioterrorism have sparked growing interest in systems that allow officials to quickly verify the origin of food products.

“You could take out a whole base or a fleet of ships strictly by causing a major gastric problem, so it’s essential to know where the food supply is coming from,” said Cheek. He said he has discussed his company’s Web-based food tracking system with Defense Department officials and has submitted it for evaluation by the Homeland Security Department.

The draft animal identification plan, which is likely to be revised, would have a fully operational system in place by mid-2005, with mandatory identification of all commercial livestock by 2006.

Scott Stuart, chief executive officer of the National Livestock Producers Association, a member of the steering committee that has been drawing up the plan, calls that a “very aggressive but very appropriate” timeline.

“It’s got to work for every size producer,” he said. “There are roughly 100 million head of cattle in the country, and the average herd size is 30 head. That means there are a lot of small guys and some big guys.”

While producers generally are supportive of an animal identification plan, they have serious reservations about the potential cost and about who will have access to information in the giant database, industry officials say.

“There are a lot of people who can see a money-making enterprise out there, and there is some concern about what happens with the data,” said Tom Buis, vice president of government relations for the National Farmers Union, which represents 300,000 independent family farms. “As long as it’s not used by those further up the food processing chain just to escape liability and force some of their errors back onto producers, I think it could be accepted.”

He also said the mad cow scare highlights the necessity of moving forward quickly with country-of-origin labeling for meat, fish and other perishable food. The issue has sharply divided the beef industry, with smaller producers generally in favor but many larger producers, meat packers and retailers opposed.

Congress passed legislation in 2001 ordering that retailers disclose the country of origin on the commodities beginning Sept. 30 of this year. But a provision in an omnibus spending bill scheduled for a Jan. 20 Senate vote would delay the labeling requirement for two years.

“We’ve had three food scares in the past six months,” said Buis, referring to the hepatitis outbreak and the mad cow cases in Canada and the United States. “Our point is the more information the better. Consumers and producers overwhelmingly support country-of-origin labeling.”

But Stuart, of the Livestock Producers Association, said it seems “inane” to order country-of-origin labeling without a working animal identification system to support it.

“The trouble is, you’ve got a huge industry which is very complicated with a lot of different participants, and everybody has got a different idea of how things should work,” said John Nalivka, a cattle industry consultant based in Vale, Ore.

“I think it's urgent, and the sooner we all get together as an industry and get this thing accomplished, the better for everybody,” he said. “Food safety is the No. 1 issue facing the industry today, and it’s been that way for the past decade. I think the time has come that we all need to work toward this idea of traceability of food in this country.”