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Marking the Beasts

The NAIS initiative has sparked plenty of debate in the cattle industry. Charlie Gaskins, professor and animal scientist at Washington State University, says most beef producers see NAIS regulations as inevitable, although many are taking a wait-and-see attitude toward how things will shake out. "I think most producers, in fact maybe all, believe it’s going to happen sooner or later. The questions would be how it’s going to be implemented, what the exact regulations will be, and when. And of course there are arguments about who is going to pay for it."

Probably because the health risks from Mad Cow emerged first, much more has been done on the NAIS initiative to track cattle than the one to monitor chickens. From a technological standpoint, NAIS has been coy about how livestock tracking of any kind will be done. They don’t specify RFID as the technology for this project, claiming in their FAQ that "USDA is maintaining a technology-neutral position with regard to the technologies that will be used to identify animals."

While RFID isn’t the only player in the field, it’s an aggressive front-runner. Pilot projects for NAIS are currently in progress to track U.S. cattle destined for the plate, and the great majority are testing RFID tracking. Jack Field, executive director of the Washington Cattlemen’s Association, is involved with the seven-state Northwest Pilot Project. The goal, says Field, is "to test as many different ID systems as possible at the local and regional level to ensure they meet the USDA 48-hour standard for trace-back." These methods of ID include traditional branding, visual dangle tags that are hand-numbered or imprinted, retinal scanning, and RFID buttons as well as combinations of these methods.

The thumbnail-size RFID button is often combined with a tag, with the whole thing fastened to an animal’s ear. While there are other methods of securing RFID tags, including embedding under the skin, ear buttons seem to be favored by most people in the industry. While they might tear loose if the cow scratches hard enough against a post or tree, the ear buttons are at least big enough that they shouldn’t find their way into the food supply. The chips will transmit a unique 15-digit number for each animal that can be matched with a database file containing information on the animal’s owner, premises, and current location.

This kind of low-frequency ear tag is estimated by Field as costing $1.75–2.50, depending on quality and read-range, with higher-performance tags clustering in the neighborhood of $2.20–2.50. Right now, in the Northwest Pilot Project, the participating producers are footing the bill for the tags. "Nobody’s happy to hear this, but it looks like a cost that will be borne by the cow/calf producers," says Field.

Readers, whether secured to posts or handheld, run $650–1,000 each, depending on whether they’re can be secured to posts or handheld. Producers might only need to buy the tags, however, leaving the costs of scanners and computing equipment to those who manage the transport, feedlot, and processing of cattle.

Unfortunately, these particular passive RFID tags can’t be read from one to three feet away. That can be a disappointment if you’re hoping to hold up a reader or slap it into a gate and scan the entire herd as they hurtle past. This limitation is being addressed by some RFID manufacturers. Advanced ID, for example, is using ultra-high-frequency (UHF) tags to improve the range and accuracy of scanning to between one and three meters. These devices allow more data storage so that more information about the animal can be transmitted. Another company, ZigBeef, is developing active RFID tags for reading at still greater ranges.

Again, RFID tags are not the only technology that promises to meet NAIS standards for animal tracking. Companies such as Optibrand are promoting retinal scanning of cattle for identification (based on the unique patterns of blood vessels in the retina). While this technique solves problems such as cattle losing their ear tags, it also requires that the animal be restrained so the scanning device can be held about a finger’s width from its eye.

The current pilot projects requires only minimal data to be kept for each animal: date, animal ID, premise number, and event code. There are genuine privacy concerns in the cattle industry that are triggered by this tracking initiative, not just because many producers are keen on privacy as a principle, but because the tracking of information about a producer’s herds can offer just the kind of market edge to a competitor that no one likes to give away. In Washington state, representatives of the cattle industry recently were successful in convincing lawmakers to pass legislation ensuring that any information submitted by an individual will be exempt from public disclosure. How this situation will play out in other states is not yet clear.

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