USAIP: Preventing Disease, One Mad Cow at a Time

When the U.S. Department of Agriculture announced the first confirmed case of mad cow in December, USDA Secretary Ann Veneman was quick to offer reassurances that the incident was not related to terrorism.

When the U.S. Department of Agriculture announced the first confirmed case of mad cow in December, USDA Secretary Ann Veneman was quick to offer reassurances that the incident was not related to terrorism.

That was all the department could confirm. It took days to verify the basics about the sick cow, such as her age and origin. By late January, the USDA had located just 28 of the 81 cows in the original herd.

Aware of the need for better tracking tools, the USDA has been working for more than a year on a sweeping system called the U.S. Animal Identification Plan (USAIP). The mad cow scare has given the USAIP's development added urgency, and Veneman says it is the top priority of USDA CIO Scott Charbobut crafting the plan is daunting. Costs are forecast at $600 million for the first years of operation.

The USAIP will track the movement of several dozen species of animals in a central database. Each animal would be tagged visually and electronically with a unique ID number. The USAIP organizers are endorsing radio frequency identification (RFID) tagging for cattle. The animals would be fitted with ear tags containing an RFID chip that would store their ID number.

Elements of the USAIP are scheduled to take effect in mid-2004, but the plan is still in draft status, and compliance remains voluntary.

"It will take several years to get the USAIP fully implemented," says development participant Tim Niedecken, director of information products for eMerge Interactive.

One critic of the USDA's approach says a tracking system won't solve the basic problems in the food supply. "All a tracking system does is tell you where the sick cows are. It doesn't tell you which cows are sick," says Ira Krull, a professor of chemistry at Northeastern University. "What they need to do is screen more animals. There is contaminated beef in the food chain."

-Stacy Cowley

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