As this issue of Dairy Herd Management goes to press, federal officials are trying to trace the origins of a cow diagnosed with bovine spongiform encephalopathy. It is the third cow in the U.S. to be diagnosed with BSE since December 2003.

One of the questions that reporters asked at a USDA-sponsored press conference on March 13 was whether the animal was born in the U.S. or not. No one knew at that time — only that the cow had last been at a farm in Alabama for a period of less than one year.

Meanwhile, the days tick by without knowing the full history of the animal, which doesn’t do much to reassure the public. After watching media reports (“Are your steaks safe?”), people can’t help but wonder if other infected or potentially infected cows exist out there. Herdmates of the Alabama animal several years ago may have been exposed to the same contaminated feed materials.

But, if they do trace the Alabama cow back to a specific herd, how are they going to know which animals were at the farm at the same time and where those cows are now?

These questions wouldn’t be nearly as daunting if a national animal-ID system were in place. We would have answers much sooner.

As the latest BSE case demonstrates, we need to step up the pace of getting an animal-ID system implemented, despite the obvious distractions.

  • It was very discouraging last Oct. 12 to be an eyewitness to the kind of sniping and turf-war battling that has characterized the animal-ID effort so far. USDA hosted an animal-ID hearing in Kansas City and invited all of the organizations (across a wide range of species) that would have a stake in it. Only one person — Bob Hillman, executive director of the Texas Animal Health Commission — made a cogent argument for getting ID implemented as soon as possible. He seemed to grasp the big picture. Others at the meeting seemed intent on promoting their own organizational interests or else getting bogged down on the administrative aspects of a proposed records database.
  • On March 8, an article appeared on the opinion page of The Kansas City Star newspaper, entitled, “Big Brother watching your cow.” (The article originated from the Fort Worth Star-Telegram.) It described the animal-ID effort as the “brainchild of big agribusiness.” A reader might conclude that the whole thing is an unnecessary bureaucratic incursion into people’s private lives and a conspiracy to sell more high-tech equipment.

Perhaps the latest BSE case will bring some sense of reason back to the debate.