In January 2003, I had the opportunity to visit some dairy producers in the Netherlands. One of them — Henk Los — lived in an area where foot-and-mouth disease had broken out two years earlier. In fact, he lived just 18 or 19 miles from an FMD-infected farm.

Given that close proximity, I was suprised by how little Mr. Los had been disrupted by the outbreak. He said he had to dump one tank containing 9,100 kilograms of milk, but that was the extent of it. No quarantines, no getting rid of animals. 

He attributed much of it to the Netherlands’ animal-identification system. Once the outbreak occurred, the animal-ID system allowed officials to keep animal movement in check, thus reducing the radius for employing the most drastic control measures.

The U.S. needs to work harder on getting its own animal-ID system in place. One of the things that’s holding back progress at this point is the lack of defined technology. In other words, the U.S. Department of Agriculture has not announced the type of equipment that producers will need in order to be compliant with the animal-ID program that becomes mandatory in 2008. So far, the USDA has taken a “technology-neutral” stance.

USDA has the unenviable task of trying to come up with a technology that can be applied across all species groups. While it’s no big deal to tag cattle individually, it’s a potentially sticky issue with poultry, swine and horses. Poultry and swine are often moved in groups, so group identification rather than individual-animal identification seems more appropriate. Horse owners aren’t about to put visible tags on their animals.

But with a minimum technology in place, such as radio-frequency identification (RFID) tags, there may be variations that can serve all of the species groups. Perhaps the same concept of reading RFID tags on cattle can be applied to reading microchips in horses. Once a basic technology is identified, additional layers can be added onto it.

We encourage USDA to announce a minimum or basic technology by the end of this year.

With a minimum technology identified, equipment manufacturers can begin adjusting their inventories and planning for large quantities of tags and tag-readers with the prescribed International Organization for Standardization (ISO) technical standards. And, producers can begin figuring out how much money this is going to cost.   

Meanwhile, producers can contact their state department of agriculture regarding premises identification. All states except Wyoming currently have a livestock-premises-ID plan in place. In Wisconsin, 15,000 of the estimated 60,000 to 70,000 livestock premises have been registered so far, and it will be mandatory for the remaining premises to register by the end of this year.

Premises ID is a necessary step in any animal-identification plan.

Animal ID will take time to implement. It took years to implement in other countries, like Australia, with far fewer animals than we have in the U.S.

If individual-animal ID is to become mandatory by 2008, we need to pick a basic technology by the end of this year and get on with it.