Retinal imaging may someday replace ear notching and branding.

Someday, processing newborn calves and pigs may entail more than just vaccinating and clipping teeth. A livestock producer also may wave a hand-held reader across an animal's eye to permanently identify it to the world. Honing in on a satellite, the reader also will note location and time.

The retinal image will become the animal's unique identification code, which will follow it through production to processing. Packers will then verify the animal's identity by scanning its eye prior to slaughter.

Retinal imaging sounds farfetched to industries relying on branding and ear notching. But, modern times and the desire for accountability through the food system force change. Incidents like mad cow disease in Great Britain highlight the need for foolproof ways to identify animals. And, if the U.S. wants to export beef and pork around the world, animal identification may become a requirement for doing global business.

A retinal image is a photograph of the pattern of blood vessels on the retina at the back of the eye. Each eye's blood vessel pattern is unique and doesn't change throughout life, much like fingerprints and DNA coding.

A Colorado company called OptiBrand is bringing this technology to the cattle yard and hog pen. OptiBrand uses a portable reader to capture the retinal images of animals in the field. Tied to a global positioning satellite, the reader encrypts the images with time, date and location.

Images from the reader are downloaded into a computer and perhaps over the Internet to OptiBrand. Each image is converted to a bar code for easy computer storage. A producer takes a retinal scan during major changes in the animal's life, such as weaning. These images are compared to archived images and the animal's identity is verified. Producers would still need conventional ear tags for daily management, however.

Technology Is Well Tested "Retinal imaging has been tested in the field on several thousand head of cattle and several thousand hogs," reports John Shadduck, OptiBrand. "It works fine, but is not something we can hand to the cowboys in the feedlot yet." The company plans to continue field testing with sturdier prototypes and then move into commercial production in about a year.

Surprisingly, cost of the equipment should be similar to that of radio frequency identification (RFID) equipment used in the industry. RFID ear tags contain electronic chips to communicate with hand-held readers.

"We think, based on our current models, we can manufacture the reader for under $1,000," Shadduck says.

Retinal images are captured in three to five seconds. "You can wave [the reader] an inch or so in front of the animal's eye," Shadduck says. "It is like a bar code scanner in a grocery store."

OptiBrand plans to provide a database service for storing retinal images of scanned animals. Producers may scan their animals, download the images to OptiBrand and receive identity verification within seconds, Shadduck claims.

Retinal imaging provides producers and processors with accountability and traceability.

"If you are a packer and want branded beef products in the marketplace, you can impose requirements on the producer and pay a premium for meeting expectations like no hormones, implants or antibiotics," Shadduck explains. "If something goes wrong, you know the cow-calf person, backgrounder and feeder.

"The imaging also gives farmers a way to verify that they are doing what they are being asked to," he adds.

Retinal imaging cuts the opportunity for fraud and equipment failure that can occur with other animal identification systems. Ear tags and implants can be lost, removed or recoded. Implants also may become covered with fibrous tissue and can't be read. And, blood tests for DNA can be lost or switched, Shadduck says.

Europe is interested in retinal imaging to halt a $400 million to $450 million cheating problem, according to Shadduck. "Instead of price supports, they have a per-head animal subsidy," he says. "Farmers get together and pool animals when an inspector comes to the farm." Retinal imaging would stop this problem.

Bruce Golden, a Colorado State University researcher, originally tested the technology on livestock and created OptiBrand to bring it to the marketplace.