Efforts to create a centralized database, which exist in some countries, have been slowed so far by disputes over who would maintain the database and who would bear its cost.
Such a database could let agricultural officials determine within hours where a sick animal came from and where it went — a crucial step in a disease outbreak or a terrorist assault on the food supply.
Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman said Tuesday that the government would speed development of the system, but offered no details.
For now, inspectors often must rely on paper records or a hodgepodge of data maintained by meat producers and breeders. After the recent mad cow discovery in Washington State, officials needed several days to determine where its meat had been sold, and encountered discrepancies in U.S. and Canadian records.
"It's very difficult and probably not possible for them to go to a particular animal and say that animal came from that particular farm," said Leon Thacker, a veterinary pathologist at Purdue University.
Technology stands ready to automate the process.
Radio-frequency identification (RFID) tags on cattle ears can maintain reams of data about an animal's existence, including its breeding, age, weight and medical history. The tags can be automatically read, sending their data directly to a computer database, by sensors placed at feed lots, slaughterhouses and other points along the chain of livestock ownership.
One company, Optibrand Ltd., further tightens the process with retinal scans of cattle to confirm their identity. Optibrand's scans are performed with readers that have global-positioning chips to record the animal's location.
Optibrand, based in Fort Collins, Colo., announced a five-year deal Tuesday to supply its technology to Swift & Co., a leading meat producer. Swift spokesman Jim Herlihy said the company will use the retinal scans in its feedlots and encourage its suppliers to embrace them as well, to make the entire life of livestock more easily traced.
Another approach is offered by Digital Angel Corp., which makes implantable chips that are used to identify lost dogs and cats and also in some cattle herds. Digital Angel, based in South St. Paul, Minn., touts the fact that the chips are unlikely to be lost or damaged.
RFID tags also are considered sturdier and less susceptible to fraud than the plastic, numeric ear tags commonly used now to identify livestock. And because the radio tags or other electronic means can produce detailed information about particular animals, they can help producers of organic or other high-quality beef prove that their meat is worth a higher price.
"The more information you know about the cattle, the more you can get them into the fine retail outlets," said Ken Conway, who directs GeneNet, an alliance of beef producers who use RFID and other high-tech measures to justify higher prices for their high-grade meat.
But while RFID is widely used in countries such as Australia, the technology has been slow to catch on in the United States.
In fact, David Warren, head of Sebastian, Fla.-based eMerge Interactive Inc., which offers RFID-based services to the livestock industry, estimates that the technology is being used on fewer than 2 percent of the nation's livestock.
One huge reason is that the industry, which operates on a low profit margin, is reluctant to embrace costly new technology.
Two Kansas State University professors recently estimated that RFID tags and related equipment could cost owners of small herds close to $25 per head of cattle; in larger herds it would cost less than $4.
But the cost will likely drop further with wider RFID use. In Canada, where the beef industry maintains a centralized cattle database, RFID tags are due to replace by Jan. 1, 2005, the current, time-consuming record-keeping method — bar codes that must be read by handheld scanners.
Julie Stitt, administrator of the Canadian Cattle Identification Agency, estimates that the per-head cost could fall below $2 — "not a whole lot more than bar codes."
Even before the U.S. mad cow scare, government and industry representatives were developing the Animal Identification Plan, a nationwide tracking system that was expected to be implemented over the next three years.
It has not been determined whether RFID or any other technology will be mandatory.
Resistance to the plan has come from meat producers who don't trust the idea of establishing a central database that would allow the government or rivals to know detailed information about their operations.
In other countries affected by mad cow, such concerns were trumped by fears that consumers would lose confidence in beef, and stringent national ID systems imposed.
In Britain, which was hit by mad cow and foot-and-mouth disease in the 1980s and '90s, every cow gets an individual identity number and its own checkbook-style "passport" that is checked by the British Cattle Movement Service, a central authority.
British authorities say they believe an electronic ID will probably become compulsory in the next few years.
In Japan, which rushed a livestock screening and database system into place after the country's first mad cow case in 2001, authorities plan to give consumers "farm-to-fork" traceability of beef by the end of 2004. Cows' 10-digit identification numbers, tagged to their ears, will appear on labels of beef in stores, letting consumers look up data on the animals on the Internet.