Agriculture: Where's the beef?

Technology deployed to help track cattle

The Agriculture Department is paving the way for a national communications network that would monitor the flow of beef from field to supermarket and register cattle facilities online via existing commercial tools.

The campaign to convince cattlemen, feedlot owners, meat packers, veterinarians and other organizations in the supply chain to register their premises is operated by a federally selected nonprofit group Agriculture has funded to choose and pay a prime contractor to run the project.

The prime contractor, Integrated Management Information, also known as IMI Global, is an established vendor of online services to the cattle industry. Under the agreement announced today, IMI Global will become the prime contractor for the National Animal Identification System, a program designed to register premises as well as identify and trace animals in the event of disease outbreak.

A fully functioning national network for tracking cattle and meat through the supply chain would greatly facilitate the analysis of the causes of and countermeasures for disease outbreaks that can cost many millions of dollars in animals that must be destroyed to quell the disease. Some cattle diseases also potentially pose a risk to human health.

IMI Global received the funding via Humane Farm Animal Care, the nonprofit group that Agriculture chose to promote cattle facility registration in accord with NAIS standards.

The contractor will use its verification and online products and services in coordination with HFAC to educate livestock-related organizations on the importance of registering their premises with NAIS.

The premise registration process is a key step in building a nationwide communications network to help cattlemen and animal health officials at various levels of government cope with the consequences of animal disease outbreaks. Notable cattle disease problems recently have included hoof and mouth disease as well as bovine spongiform encephalopathy, also known as mad cow disease.

IMI Global will use its verification and Web products and services in concert with HFAC to advocate the benefits of registering livestock premises to various organizations in the industry.

IMI Global has built a suite of cattle verification and identification systems that include the CattleNetwork and AgNetwork Web sites. The company will use those sites to reach the main audiences for the promotional campaign, most of whom are the ranchers and feed yards who are IMI Global's base of current and potential customers.

The nationwide communications network would play a crucial role in tracking the source and destination of cattle and cattle products in the event of a future introduction of an exotic animal disease to the country.

IMI Global, which is already a leader in cattle verification and identification systems, will use its CattleNetwork and AgNetwork Web sites to orchestrate a promotional campaign aimed at current and potential IMI Global customers. The most important members of that audience base are the cattle ranchers and feed yards, the company said.

"We are pleased to have been selected by HFAC for this important program and look forward to bringing all of our technology resources to bear on making the NAIS a success," John Saunders, chief executive officer of IMI Global, said in a statement. "These resources include our USVerified, SupplyVerified, CattleNetwork, CattleStore and AgNetwork products ' all of which can play a key role in organizing the industry behind NAIS."

"IMI Global has worked with several producers seeking to achieve certification under HFAC's Certified Humane Raised and Handled program," Saunders said. "This new program relationship is a natural progression for our two organizations. To date approximately 410,000 premises have been registered nationwide, and we believe that as livestock professionals learn more about the benefits of the NAIS program, they will be eager to get on board with premises registration."

Proper identification of the source of the animal tissue or imported virus that might lead to, say, a domestic outbreak of hoof and mouth disease or bovine spongiform encephalopathy could dramatically hasten the investigations that Agriculture immediately launches to track and eradicate the diseases.

HMD is widely considered the most serious animal disease. The HMD virus is very easily spread via the wind and through all forms of clothing, shoes and hair. As a result, Agriculture's measure to prevent the import of possibly tainted substances and mandate the decontamination of travelers who arrive from zones where HMD prevails range from the strict to the draconian.

This country has been free of hoof and mouth disease since 1929, sources said, but an HMD outbreak in Taiwan in 1997 claimed more than 4 million pigs that were slaughtered or died in two months. An HMD event in Britain this year immediately shut export markets for the country's beef and prompted outraged condemnation of the government's halting response.

In the worst case, contaminated beef can lead to human sickness and death. Veterinary and human epidemiologists consider mad cow disease to be the most likely cause of 'new variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease.' That disease reportedly has killed more than 165 people in Britain already and six elsewhere. That number could rise, experts say, because of the disease's long incubation period.

The introduction of mad cow disease into this country initially prompted an aggressive inspection program, according to specialists in the field.

But that campaign reportedly has withered, sources said, in the face of pressure from the agriculture lobby. As a result some 65 countries have barred imports of domestic beef. Beef exports declined from $3.8 billion to $1.4 billion between 2003 ' before mad cow disease reached this country ' and 2005, after it had become established.

Federal officials have conducted tortuous negotiations with countries such as Japan that have banned the import of domestically-produced beef as a result of concerns about the health of the product.

Mad cow disease is spread by a prion, which might be described as a misshapen virus. The resulting disease toll in this country has been vanishingly small.

However, bacterial infections resulting from salmonella contamination caused 58 deaths in this country from 1996 to 1999, according to a peer-reviewed study published in the journal Clinical Infectious Diseases.

The HFAC program also includes other industry groups such as the American Angus Association, Future Farmers of America and the National Pork Board, the prime contractor said.

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