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Test EVERY Cow in the Food Chain

Test EVERY Cow in the Food Chain
Like Other Countries Do

Monday, December 21, 2009

Aussies Get Serious about Mad Cow Disease , USDA "Amused"

Aussies NAIS Working

A national system to track diseased cattle remains a work in progress here, but
Australia has developed a successful system that some say is worth replicating
by Erin Snelgrove
Yakima Herald-Republic

Celso Alvarez attaches an identification tag to a cow at the George DeRuyter &
Sons Dairy in early November 2009. The tags contain a wealth of information that
allow the cow to be identified and tracked throughout its life.

EDITOR'S NOTE: Yakima County is home to an estimated 286,432 meat and dairy
cattle. It's also where the nation's first confirmed case of mad cow disease
occurred six years ago. That discovery helped prompt efforts to develop a
national system to track diseased animals. Reporter Erin Snelgrove traveled to
Australia and reports today on how that nation developed such a program and how
efforts are progressing here.

CLONCURRY, Australia -- Dust billows in the sun-drenched sky as 600 cattle
charge through the chute. They act as one, a writhing mass of legs and hooves.
Flies swarm in their wake, and ranchers stand on alert, ready to jump into the
fray if needed.

As each animal passes, its ear tag transmits data that's entered into a national
database, allowing authorities to track each animal from birth to death.

In a global economy, where mad cow, hoof and mouth and other diseases can crush
a market overnight, the ability to track cattle can be crucial.

In Australia, where 65 percent of all beef is exported, it's especially

"It gives us lifelong traceability," said Ray Campbell, who owns a 26,000-acre
cattle operation in Cloncurry. "It gives us the edge in the world market.
Australian beef is known as clean and green."

In the United States -- where discovery of a single case of mad cow disease at a
Mabton dairy in December 2003 prompted Japan, Korea and others to ban U.S. beef
imports for more than a year -- some see the Australian system as worth

Since 2004, the U.S. Department of Agriculture has been attempting to develop a
program similar to Australia's.

But not everyone likes what the USDA has been proposing.

"This is overly intrusive, overly costly," said Bill Bullard, chief operating
officer of R-CALF, a Billings, Mont.-based organization representing thousands
of cattle producers in 47 states.

"There's no justification for the onerous regulatory scheme the USDA is
proposing ... We think this is un-American."

Whether a system such as Australia's can be developed in the United States
remains to be seen, but most in the Australian beef industry said they were glad
a universal tracking system is in place.

"From time to time, individuals indicate it's a load of garbage," Campbell said.
"But they're getting fewer and fewer."

As the world's second-largest beef exporter -- only Brazil exports more --
Australia had compelling reasons for ensuring its products are safe and

In the 1990s, it watched the spread of mad cow disease in England. Mad cow, or
Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy (BSE), is a chronic, degenerative disease
affecting the central nervous system of cattle.

Scientists suspected that people who eat the brain, spinal cord or other
infected tissues from BSE-infected cattle can develop the incurable and
always-fatal variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease, which destroys the brain and
causes dementia, memory loss, personality changes, hallucinations and other
involuntary body movements.

The British government ultimately destroyed more than 4.3 million cattle as a
safety measure because it didn't know which animals were infected.

In Australia, there was general agreement in the government and industry on the
concept of a tracking system to identify which cattle may have been exposed to a
disease, and even what they ate.

The Mabton case was suspected to have been caused by feed that a dairy cow ate
in Canada that included brains and other internal cattle organs infected with
BSE. However, authorities were unable to determine which other cattle might have
eaten the same feed or where they ended up.

Despite the general consensus in Australia on the need for tracking, working out
the details wasn't easy.

Ranchers, for example, were reluctant to disclose private business information,
such as the number of cattle they owned, in the highly competitive beef market.

James Lord, owner of the May Downs cattle station, a 600,000-acre operation in
Mount Isa, Australia, said cost was his top worry. Already, land rents were
increasing and complaints about the cost of government regulation loom as large
there as in the United States.

Ear tags alone cost the equivalent of about $2.80 U.S. each. For a large
rancher, that can easily run into tens of thousands of dollars.

Lord now thinks the database has promise. One day it could be used to track
fertility and weight -- data that could improve herd quality and economic

In the meantime, he said the ability to trace diseases helps reassure
international customers about product safety.

"We have a good, clean image. We have to maintain that image," he said.

The system works by clipping an ear tag encrypted with a 15-digit number to each
animal. The code has the uniqueness of a Social Security number and is
transmitted via radio or electronic frequencies to machines placed wherever
cattle are being moved from one operation to another. The numbers in the
machines are then transferred into a national database. Every time the animal
moves to a different farm, ranch or stockyard, the database is updated.

By 2006, a system was in place to track the movements of every one of
Australia's approximately 28 million cattle. Ranchers and producers are required
to participate.

The database program, which includes proprietary information from ranchers, is
administered by Meat and Livestock Australia, a privately operated,
producer-owned company. The company collects the equivalent of $4.50 U.S. on the
sale of each head of cattle. That money funds not only the tracking program but
also a wide range of other activities, including international marketing and
research and development.

Monitoring for compliance is conducted by each of Australia's state governments,
and there are penalties for violations. While fines vary by location, they
typically run the equivalent of $930 U.S., plus court costs.

Dale Saunders, a sale yard manager in Cloncurry, said the system isn't perfect.

"There are still a few kinks," he said. "We still have 10 percent to work on
yet. ... As people learn to understand it, it's getting better."

Sometimes tags don't work or they fall out, and sometimes people will transfer
cattle without reading the tags properly. Still, there's a general acceptance.

"I feel it's been effective," said Campbell, a Cloncurry rancher. "We use it as
a marketing tool. ... It's like any industry. We've come a long way. You have to
change with the times."

Changing with the times hasn't been as easy in the United States.

Perhaps that's because, unlike Australia, the United States exports only about
10 percent of its beef. As a result, there's less pressure to satisfy a world

But when that international trade is disrupted -- such as in 2003 when that cow
with BSE was detected in Mabton -- the results can still be disastrous.

After the outbreak, American beef was banned for 18 months by Japan. That
country was the world's largest foreign buyer of U.S. meat and had imported more
than $1 billion worth annually.

A similar ban by South Korea cost the U.S. industry an estimated $1.6 billion
over two years.

To this day, Japan, Korea and a number of other Asian nations require beef
importers to meet standards that are stricter and more expensive than standard
international guidelines.

In the wake of the mad cow scare, the USDA announced in 2004 the framework for a
national tracking process known as the National Animal Identification System, or

The USDA's long-term goal is to track the source of diseased livestock within 48
hours to stop its spread and remove any cattle suspected of carrying disease.

So far, it's spent about $147 million developing the program.

But its efforts have been slowed by resistance from the industry, which voices
many of the same concerns raised by Australian producers when that nation was
developing a program in the 1990s.

As a result, beef producers here aren't required to participate in NAIS. Only
about 37 percent of the nation's livestock producers take part on a voluntary

The USDA says that without mandatory participation, the program won't be

Jack Field, executive director of the Washington Cattlemen's Association in
Ellensburg, concedes a side benefit of a tracking system could be greater access
to the world market.

Still, he said those who want to export around the globe -- and get the
resulting premium prices for their beef -- are already doing so.

"The industry has been able to recapture current export markets with the
voluntary system," he said. "The free market drove that process."

Similar objections are raised by Bullard of R-CALF, who said the United States
has already done a great job of preventing and controlling diseases in the
livestock industry.

He thinks the proposed system is more about promoting global commerce than
disease control.

"We believe this is an attempt by the USDA and meat packers to comply with
international standards for international commerce," he said. "It's
misrepresented as a disease program."

But Jay Gordon, executive director of the Washington State Dairy Federation in
Elma, said that argument is a red herring.

"This is primarily about disease," he said.

"If we can't trace where foot and mouth disease is, what's left after the pile
gets through burning we won't be able to sell," he said, referring to how
England burned vast numbers of cattle carcasses that were feared diseased in the

"This debate is getting old," he said. "We're risking so much by being

Dan DeRuyter, a partner in George DeRuyter & Sons Dairy -- a 4,000-head
operation in Outlook -- has been preparing to participate in NAIS for several
years. He already uses electronic tags to record everything from a cow's family
tree to its milk production.

Most dairy producers already use that kind of identification program to manage
their herds. But DeRuyter said the next step is to integrate some of his data
with the national system. He supports the USDA and its efforts to implement a
universal program.

"Anything that would reassure the consumer we have a quality product is good for
us," said DeRuyter, whose family has been in the dairy business for about 40

Others are more skeptical.

The USDA conducted 14 listening sessions nationwide to take comments on the
program, including one that attracted about 75 Western livestock producers in
Pasco in May. Like Australia, concerns about cost were voiced.

If 90 percent of the beef and dairy industries participated in NAIS, the USDA
estimates the annual cost at $176 million. That breaks down to $4.91 per animal.
Buying and applying the tags makes up three-fourths of the expense.

The USDA estimates the cost for consumers would be less than one-half of 1

There's also concern by some cattlemen that confidential information would leak
from a federal database. Such information could include a producer's herd size,
which could aid competitors.

"There's fear of the unknown and who will control the database," Field said.

A few ranchers even worry that animal-rights groups could somehow gain access to
the information to use against them or that their cattle will be tracked by

Field dismisses such claims as unrealistic, but believes the USDA's proposal has

"The current federal approach -- one size fits all -- is poorly executed," he

If a database is created, many Washington cattle producers want it controlled by
the industry, like Australia's privately operated system.

An ideal program, according to many ranchers, would be privately operated
systems for each state that have uniform standards for data retrieval. They
believe such state-based databases would be more accurate.

"A huge (national) database would never be up-to-date," said Leonard Eldridge,
Washington state veterinarian with the state Department of Agriculture in

"We know our state. We don't know other states," he said. "When there's a need
for animal tracking, disease tracking, we'll share with the USDA and other state

Neil Hammerschmidt, NAIS program coordinator in Washington, D.C., said all
options are being considered, but the concern is having a program that can be
shared universally at the local, state and federal level.

Field and Eldridge hope to overcome these obstacles, and are discussing ways to
develop such a system. They contend the federal government can set up the
program's parameters, and each state can manage and control it. The states'
veterinarians would work with other veterinarians and issue tags.

To Field, a state-run program is an acceptable compromise between a national
system and no system.

"Now it appears the USDA isn't willing or ready to consider changing its
direction," he said. "It can be frustrating to see the USDA political machine

* Erin Snelgrove can be reached at 509-577-7684 or\

1 comment:

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