Cow ID System May Be Delayed

A truck hauling a container arrives at the Port of Tacoma, Wash., Friday, Jan. 2, 2004. SCS Refrigerated Services is storing at least 140 shipping containers of beef at their Tacoma and Seattle cold storage facilities that were intended to be shipped overseas before the Mad Cow scare halted beef import by many countries.
An animal identification system that the Agriculture Department has said would be put in place immediately to help safeguard the meat supply against mad cow disease is expected to take a year or two to phase in, The New York Times reports in its Saturday editions.

Weaknesses in tracking cattle have been revealed in the last week as officials have scrambled to try to locate cows connected to the one in Washington State found to have been infected with mad cow disease, the Times points out.

The purpose of a new system would be to find cows that might have been involved in disease outbreaks and trace them to their origins within 48 hours, the Times says.

According to the newspaper, the new identification plan, described on a government Web site,, calls for farms and other premises that handle animals to have identification numbers by July 2004, and animals themselves to be numbered by July 2005.

The animals' numbers will be on ear tags that will probably emit a radio frequency that will be read by the same kind of devices, like E-ZPass, that have begun replacing tollbooths on some highways. The tag numbers may also be printed so a person can read them, the Times explains.

Development of the plan has been in the works for more than a year and a half, and it may not be possible to hasten it, despite the mad cow case, the Times says.

"These timelines are very aggressive, and it will be a huge task to get the system in place and operational to the extent we'd like it," Scott Stuart, president of the National Livestock Producers Association, a group in Colorado Springs that has been working on the plan with the Agriculture Department, said to the Times.

Currently, he told the Times, although there is no central identification system for cattle, some animals can be traced by their brands or by ear tags registering their vaccinations for certain diseases.

Meanwhile, a third farm has been quarantined after authorities located a cow from the same Canadian herd as a Holstein stricken with mad cow disease, and - with dozens of cattle from the herd still missing - more farms may be isolated in days to come.

At least some cows quarantined since the discovery last month of the Holstein will be destroyed, either because of possible exposure to the infection or to quell public fear, Dr. Ron DeHaven, the Agriculture Department's chief veterinarian, said Friday.

"It would be safe to assume that ... some or all those animals will need to be sacrificed," DeHaven said of the quarantined cattle. A decision on the first cows to be killed will be made soon, he said.

Results of DNA testing that should determine conclusively whether the original sick cow was born in Alberta, Canada, in April 1997 are expected next week, DeHaven said.

The herd put under quarantine in the last day or two is at a dairy farm in Mattawa, near Yakima, where investigators traced one of 80 cows that entered the United States with the diseased Holstein in late 2001.

Another nine cows and a calf born last month to the sick cow are on the Mabton, Wash., dairy farm that was the Holstein's final home. Another calf is on a farm at Sunnyside, Wash., also near Yakima, that raises bull calves.

Mike Louisell, spokesman for the state Department of Agriculture, said the number of farms to be quarantined in Washington could grow as the search for other cattle from the Canadian herd continues.

However, many people in the cattle industry appeared unfazed.

"They're not going to quarantine everybody," said John Top, co-owner of the Toppenish Livestock Commission about 25 miles southeast of Yakima. "They're going to sit tight on a few farms as they trace these cows, but I would expect by the end of next week they'll know where all those cows are."

"We don't know where that investigation is going to end up or how many dairies, whether it's one more or five more or ten," said Patti Brumbach, executive director of the Washington State Beef Commission. "I have confidence that consumers will continue to look at this rationally and that this is a continuation of the investigation."

The search for the rest of the herd's cattle is still in the early stages and it is too soon to say if more quarantines will be warranted, Agriculture Department spokeswoman Julie Quick said.

The quarantined farms officially have been placed on hold by the state, which means animals can't leave or arrive at the farms. The dairy farms can continue to operate, selling milk, which is not considered at risk of transmitting the disease.

Investigators are trying to find cows from the same herd because the most likely source of infection was contaminated feed that the Holstein ate as a calf, DeHaven said. She was born before August 1997, when cow parts were prohibited from cattle feed in the United States and Canada.

DeHaven told CBS News Correspondent Lou Miliano that U.S and Canadian officials will spend the weekend pouring over records dating back six years.

Both countries limited the contents of feed to reduce the chances of infecting cattle through the food chain.

American officials have stressed that the diseased cow's age and the date of the feed ban suggest the infection occurred in Canada. This idea, if proven, would underline the effectiveness of the ban and, what is more important, would allow U.S. authorities to place the root of the problem north of the border, in Canada.

The offspring of the sick cow are under quarantine because mother-to-calf transmission is considered unlikely but cannot be ruled out. DeHaven said investigators also are trying to trace the cow's mother and siblings.

The government typically pays up to market value for animals that it condemns to death to contain a disease. USDA officials have said they have yet to formulate a payment plan.

Mad cow disease, or bovine spongiform encephalopathy, is a threat because humans can develop a brain-wasting illness, variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, from consuming beef products contaminated with BSE. Although 153 people worldwide have contracted that illness, most in Britain, it has never been diagnosed in an American.

Including the stricken Holstein, 81 animals were believed shipped across the border from the same Alberta farm in 2001.