Sun is setting on RFID track-and-trace---for farm animals

Pharmaceutical CommercePharmaceutical Commerce - January/February 2010

USDA program started around when the FDA program did, and encountered similar problems

In early February, following a national “listening tour” by US Dept of Agriculture head Tom Vilsack, the agency threw in the towel on a six-year effort to tag most types of farm animals—specifically beef cattle. The episode is instructive for how a well-intentioned federal program hits a buzzsaw of competing industry interests, technological and cost hurdles—and risks for the end consumer.

What counterfeit drugs entering the supply chain are to the pharma distribution industry, mad cow disease and related infections are to beef and dairy cattle. An incident of a diseased cow entering the US distribution system in 2003 led to a call for a national animal tracking system, so that future cases of food contamination could be traced back to presumed sources. The USDA “National Animal Identification System” (NAIS) was to give each farm an ID number, and then each animal its own unique ID. RFID ear tags were to be the data carrier. The program became voluntary in 2006; USDA spent some $120 million on pilots at farms, feedlots and other processing points to develop the system.

But in the end, only about 36% of farms had registered, and a chorus of objections were raised. Initial tag technology was only about 60% accurate; tagging costs were estimated at $3.30-5.52 per head; and many small farmers and ranchers objected to any form of federal intrusion, fearing that data collected on animal movement would somehow be used against them. Business Week reported that the beef export market dropped over 80% between 2003 and 2004, and is still down 30% as of 2009. Large enterprises involved in exports pushed for the system, as did the American Veterinary Medicine Assn. But as one Western rancher put it, “for a first-world country like the United States” the system was “completely unnecessary.”

Now, USDA will take the next two years to develop a state-by-state system; tracking will still be in force for interstate movement of cattle. The problem of inter-communication between states (so similar to the state-level pedigree rules in place for pharmaceuticals) is yet to be addressed.

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