Comprehensive, Coordinated Animal Identification A Must for Food Safety, National Security

Linda Benedict, Sanson, David W.  |  3/3/2007 1:02:48 AM

Christine B. Navarre and David Sanson

Individual livestock producers have been using animal identification for decades. But not until recently has the need for a more comprehensive, coordinated national animal identification and tracking system been recognized. The ability to rapidly track livestock movements is essential to minimizing the effects of a highly contagious animal disease outbreak such as foot-and-mouth disease. Currently, this is not possible. It took months, for example, to track all the animal movements and contacts of a limited number of bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE, often called mad cow disease) cases, and in some instances that tracking was incomplete. BSE is not a contagious disease, so rapid tracking was not critical. We do not have the luxury of time with highly contagious diseases.

In response to the need for rapid tracking of livestock and poultry movements, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has designed the National Animal Identification System (NAIS). The goal of the NAIS, which has been proposed as a completely voluntary program, is to be able to identify within 48 hours of a confirmed outbreak the animals exposed to a contagious disease and where they have traveled.

The three parts to the NAIS are premise identification, animal identification and animal tracking. Premise and animal identification have to occur before animal tracking. It’s important to note that the premise identification information is held confidentially by each state. Private databases will hold individual animal identification numbers and animal tracking data. Only in the event of an animal health emergency or disease outbreak will state or federal veterinarians be able to have access to this information. They will not have access to other information such as performance data. The IRS and other government agencies do not have access to this data. Because of much misinformation about the NAIS, producers are urged to learn all they can about the system.

The NAIS cattle working groups, after careful consideration of many factors, decided that electronic identification with radio frequency identification (RFID) tags was the best method of identifying cattle. RFID is a method of identification not very different from using a numbered ear tag for cattle, a serial number for a piece of equipment or a VIN number for a car. The real difference between RFID and most other methods of identification is that RFID is capable of interacting wirelessly with a computer or other electronic data manager. This technology has been adapted by several ear tag manufacturers, resulting in several types of ear tags that contain RFID technology. These ear tags offer the ability to transmit an animal’s identification information to a computer.

The technology for RFID has been around for years. Many things involve some form of wireless communication – radio, television and cell phones, for example.

An RFID ear tag contains a small electronic chip and a long, coiled, copper wire that serves as the antenna for transmitting and receiving information. These two components are encased in a plastic tag that fits into an animal’s ear. An important aspect of the RFID system is the length of the antenna; the longer the antenna, the greater the distance the information can be transmitted. The RFID component of most of the RFID ear tags on the market is a thin disc. This allows for maximum antenna length for a given size.

The easiest way to explain the way an RFID ear tag works is to think of it as a radio. A radio requires a transmitter to code the information and send it into the airwaves. A receiver decodes the information and sends it to a speaker that produces the sound we hear. An RFID operates much like a two-way radio – the ear tag and the reader both serve as transmitters and receivers.

When an RFID reader is activated, it sends a signal to an RFID ear tag within signal range. The ear tag will pick up the signal that tells the tag to send out its information. At this point, the ear tag becomes the transmitter, and the reader becomes the receiver and records the information sent by the tag.

Most RFID ear tags on the market are passive tags that do not accept data from the reader and do not have a builtin energy source. The energy to power a passive tag comes from the energy contained in the radio waves sent from the reader. A few ear tags on the market will accept information from the reader and store it in the chip, but these are more expensive.

The information a passive tag sends to the reader is a 15-digit number. The first three digits represent the country of origin of the animal, and the remaining 12 digits represent a unique sequence that identifies the animal much like a Social Security number. Each country will have a different three digit number. The number for the United States is 840. Although current tags do not begin with 840, this will become the standard in the near future.

The only difference between an RFID ear tag and a conventional ear tag is that one can transfer its information electronically while the other one requires visual reading. It is important to understand that the benefit of an RFID is finished once the information gets from the tag to the reader. What the user does with the information at that point is almost unlimited. The reader may display the number or send the number to a computer or some other type of data management device.

The LSU AgCenter’s Rosepine Research Station has incorporated RFID technology into its data collection system. For example, tags are read as animals move onto the scale, and the identification number is sent to a computer along with the animals’ weight and date. This system can provide any additional information about the animal that is stored on the computer.

The USDA specifications for private databases to be compliant with NAIS are now available, and companies are beginning to offer producers software that provides a wide variety of benefits. Some of this software combines animal health programs with age and source verification to provide health guarantees and herd production and financial data analysis. Not only are these programs NAIS-compliant, which helps protect the industry from the devastating effects of an animal disease outbreak, they also provide producers with additional opportunities to manage and market their cattle.
Christine B. Navarre, Associate Professor, Department of Veterinary Science, LSU AgCenter, Baton Rouge, La., and David Sanson, Associate Professor, Dean Lee Research Station, Alexandria, La.

(This article was published in the winter 2007 issue of Louisiana Agriculture.)
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