One cannot help but wonder if the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has bitten off more than it can chew when it comes to tracking animals.

Five years and $147 million after USDA opted to implement an animal tracking system based on the Australian model, it’s far from a done deal.

cattle-feature.jpgIn fact, in late November, USDA and Congress both received letters signed by 100 agricultural groups advocating death for the National Animal Identification System (NAIS).

NAIS, says the letter from the Ag groups, “is an ill-conceived, burdensome, and badly implemented solution for achieving the national objective of improving animal disease prevention and control in the United States.”

Australia, the second largest exporter of beef from a continent that is “Mad Cow” free, has a “birth-to-death” tracking system for its farm animals that uses a national database to keep track of every ownership change.

The system, which was up and running by 2006, uses an encrypted ear tag that uses a 15-digit number to identify the animal.   The tag transmits the number to machines whenever animals are moved or sold, and the data is ultimately uploaded to the national database of Australia’s 28 million head of cattle.

According to the Yakima Herald Republic, a Washington State daily newspaper that sent a reporter to Australia to check the system out, ranchers and producers down under have no choice about participating in the program.  Fines for noncompliance are $930 US, plus court costs.

In addition, each sale pays $4.50 per head to Meat and Livestock Australia, a privately owned company that runs the tracking program in addition to international marketing, research, and development activities.

Australian cattleman Ray Campbell with a 26,000-acre cattle ranch in Cloncurry told the visiting Herald Republic there is general acceptance of the system. “It gives us lifelong traceability,” he said. “It gives us an edge in the world market.  Australian beef is known as clean and green.”

Canada opted for a system that is not as comprehensive as Australia’s, but rather “bookends” the ownership records at birth and immediately prior to slaughter.   Canadian cattlemen believe that information would during emergencies give officials enough to go on for obtaining more information from private records.

According to the Herald Republic, the Canada Food Inspection Agency carries out more than 2,000 trace-backs a year to investigate potential outbreaks of diseases.  These cases include anthrax, mange, mad cow, and bovine tuberculosis.