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The big scare last Christmas, as it has been on all Christmases since September 11, was supposed to be terrorism. Instead, it turned out to be a lone Holstein cow from the state of Washington.
In between holiday carols on the radio, news bulletin after breathless news bulletin updated listeners on the nation's first presumptive case for Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy (BSE), as well as the ensuing traceback investigation undertaken by USDA authorities, who found themselves poking around a cattle farm in Mattawa, Wash., before they finally set their sights on Calmar, Alberta, where the so-called "index cow" originated.
It was quick work by USDA. And quick policy too. On December 30, just a week after Agriculture Secretary Ann M. Veneman broke the news of the infected cow, she followed up with a lengthy list of "additional protection measures" USDA planned to undertake in order to prevent further outbreaks of BSE in the U.S. (see sidebar). A little more than a week later, Veneman announced that USDA would begin accepting license applications for BSE tests.
Throughout the long month of January, USDA also continued to issue daily updates on its efforts to locate remaining cattle from the source herd in Calmar, an investigation that led to the examination and identification of more than 75,000 animals in Washington, Oregon and Idaho, and to the depopulation of 255 of them, all of which tested negative for BSE.
A meat inspector on January 5 checks cattle carcasses hanging in a Wichita, Kansas, slaughterhouse just days after mad cow was discovered in the U.S.
On February 9, USDA issued its "final" such update and the case, as they say, was closed.
Or was it? USDA has since acknowledged that it located only 24 of the 80 cattle that entered the U.S. with the infected cow. Nor did the agency fare much better with the cow's progeny; in January, authorities destroyed 450 bull calves in Washington state because they could not determine which one was the infected cow's offspring.
So some unfinished business remains, not the least of which is a USDA mandate that the beef industry fast track plans for a national identification system to track cattle from birth to slaughter and beyond. The industry could end up adopting a system similar to Canada's Cattle Identification Program, which relied upon Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) to trace the infected cow to Calmar. For the uninitiated, RFID uses electromagnetic or electrostatic coupling in the RF portion of the electromagnetic spectrum to transmit signals. Hence, a typical RFID system consists of an antenna and transceiver, which read the radio frequency and transfer information to a processing device, and a transponder, or tag, which is an integrated circuit containing the RF circuitry and information to be transmitted.
If that sounds like a mouthful, imagine implementing RFID or a similar technology among the 95 million dairy and beef cattle grazing in U.S. pastures. A number of systems suppliers can imagine it, though it remains to be seen how quickly the industry responds with a definitive plan. For her part, Veneman told the Senate Agriculture Committee in January that USDA planned to "expedite" implementation of a national identification program that would enable the agency to trace any animal to any location in the U.S. within 48 hours. However, some weeks later she backpedaled when she acknowledged, "I don't have a timeline."
One reason is that the U.S. Animal Identification Plan (USAIP), a proposed RFID-based system endorsed by USDA, needs to be modified to account for the peculiarities of mad cow disease, which can lie dormant in cattle for years. In the meantime, a consortium of some 70 industry groups, including the National Cattlemen's Beef Association and the Holstein Association USA, continues to press forward with the program.
The Holstein Association, which proposed 1999's National Farm Animal Identification and Records (FAIR) system, upon which USAIP is purportedly based, currently is storing data for two pilot projects and has pledged to manage the data for a national system, once it is in place. Moreover, the consortium expects to have phase one of USAIP -- Premises ID -- in place by this July. Phase one provisions require that standardized premise identification numbers be established for all production operations, markets, assembly points, exhibitions and processing plants. Planners meanwhile are working toward a target date of July 2005 to have systems ready so producers can label their animals with national ID numbers. Meanwhile, bills mandating a national animal identification system were in both houses of Congress at press time.
"A national identification program is critical not only to food safety, but to source verification of our meat products," says Steve Van Lannen, general manager with Packerland Packing, the largest beef company east of the Mississippi River. "We installed National FAIR eartag readers in our facilities three years ago."
Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman: USDA and FDA have teamed to tighten several sets of regulations in response to the mad cow discovery.
There's probably no arguing that traceability is a concept whose time has come, and not simply for cattle producers, or for processors who incorporate beef into their products. As mandated by the federal Bioterrorism Act, the FDA indicated last year it was proceeding with a Food Source Identification and Tracking System so that FDA officials not only will be able pinpoint where food has been, but where it is going as it travels from ports, factories or distributors within the U.S. More recently, the National Pork Producers Council indicated that while the swine industry has had mandatory identification requirements in place since 1988, the program is no substitute for a "coordinated across-species mandatory identification system." At stake, the Council continued, is no less than "the loss of international markets" in the event of a foodborne illness or criminal food contamination.
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