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Animal identification and
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[FEB. 5, 2004]  URBANA -- A single dairy cow that tested positive for mad cow disease may provide the impetus for an overdue national system of animal identification, said a University of Illinois animal scientist. But the process is not likely to be as simple as some think.

"Currently, every automobile has a VIN number, and this is recorded at every transaction with that vehicle. There is no compelling reason why this same procedure cannot be applied to livestock," said Philip J. Dziuk, professor emeritus of animal sciences.

Yet more than 20 years researching animal identification systems and advocating a federal guideline has convinced Dziuk that achieving what might seem a simple goal is complicated.

Under the leadership of Dziuk and the late Sid Spahr, the U of I Department of Animal Sciences was an early leader in developing electronic identification systems for animals. Since that time, a number of other identification procedures, including DNA and iris scans, have proven effective. Still, efforts toward a national system have languished in the United States.

In 1996, when European outbreaks of mad cow disease and hoof-and-mouth disease were still in the future, Dziuk authored an article, "The Physiology, Psychology, Politics and Possibility of Permanent, Unique, Electronic Identification of Animals." The title reveals some of the factors that in Dziuk's view have delayed implementation of an identification system.

Dziuk wrote that the physiological problems associated with reliable animal identification systems had been solved and improvements were on the horizon. The psychological problems, he said, were a bit tougher, as they involved "a very considerable change in long-standing procedures."

But the primary roadblock, in Dziuk's view, is the politics.

"The politics of achieving an animal identification system may be even more difficult because first, people must change, and then the written word as a reflection of politics must change," he said. "People will have to be convinced of the logic in positive, permanent identification of animals."

Heightened concerns over the vulnerability of the U.S. food system to possible terrorist attack and, now, the appearance of mad cow disease, a malady that decimated the British beef industry, have increased the receptivity toward the idea.

Will these be enough to break through the barriers of resistance? It is a complicated issue, as Dziuk knows from experience. There are a number of concerns or disincentives throughout the system.

"An experience with positive identification of 300 hogs from the farm through the packing plant indicates some of the challenges," said Dziuk. "The hog producer became uneasy with such traceability when he found that poor-quality hogs could be traced and penalized. On the other hand, the packer realized that the producer found that his high-quality hogs were not being paid in proportion to their value, and the packer became uneasy."


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Dziuk emphasizes, though, the other end of the equation.

"When both buyer and seller know that the product can be identified and traced, the seller will be less inclined to try to foist off an inferior product, and he will, in turn, be rewarded for a superior product," he said.

With 50-plus years of experience with livestock on farms, in farm field trials and in research, Dziuk is convinced that "there is a potential problem and that there are potential solutions."

Lacking traceability, an outbreak of mad cow disease, hoof-and-mouth or other similar maladies can disrupt an entire industry. Identification allows a quick and sure means of isolating the infected animals and creates a means for traceability, ensuring a greater chance of containing disease outbreaks and protecting human health.

No one system, he said, is best for all animals. Electronic implants will work in some species; approaches such as iris and retinal scans, antibody and DNA analyses will work best in others. Use of Global Positioning System technology offers great promise in traceability applications.

Dziuk pointed out that by combining various identification technologies and GPS, "You could pinpoint where the driver, the truck carrying animals to market and the animals were at any given time in transit."

"For most of these approaches, the means of identification will probably be cheaper than the costs of indemnifying diseased animals. We only have to look at the costs to producers in Europe and Asia who have been hit by disease outbreaks to gauge what U.S. producers could potentially face," he said.

"Additionally, a system of animal identification reduces the possibility of theft, fraud and deliberate misidentification."

Key to any system is a central repository of identifications. "That system in itself will provide an effective deterrent to disease spread and other problems," he said. "All methods need to be linked by a computer in a central base. A central database provides health authorities, breeding organizations, food processing and law enforcement one source to identify an animal.

"We should learn from the European experience that controlling disease outbreaks can be very expensive, especially when unidentified animals are moved from place to place."

[University of Illinois news release]

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