In Britain, a technological revolution is taking place to track livestock from birth to death. Backed by the government, the new passport-like program is being called the Cattle Tracing System (CTS).

Starting last month, the British Cattle Movement Service (BCMS) assumed responsibility for the issue of cattle passports to all producers in England, Wales and Scotland, and for the system that will record the birth, movement and death of all registered animals.

The operation will eventually affect everyone involved in the handling of cattle and the way they conduct their day-to-day business. It's designed to improve the identification and tracing of cattle so the possibility of disease outbreak can be dealt with quickly.

The old system of tracing animals using written, farm-based records was slow and unreliable, says David Evans, BCMS director. So in 1996, in an effort to speed up the process, producers of cattle born or imported have been required by law to apply for passports for their animals.

The price of not obtaining the correct documentation is high: No animal without one can be accepted for human consumption.

Keeping Track Applications for the cattle passports will fulfill producers' legal obligations to register the birth of an animal. A birth must be registered within 15 days of the animal being tagged. On Jan. 1, 2000, this will be reduced to seven days. An exception applies to animals moved on a calf passport which must be returned to the BCMS before the animal is 28 days old, Evans says. Death reported within seven days.

Once an animal is accepted for registration, a passport will be issued. The passports are similar in style to bank checkbooks and contain not only the details of the animal but its movement history and a number of freepost movement cards.

(Freepost is a service where the postage costs are paid on behalf of the sender by another party. In this case, the UK Government's Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food.)

These are to be used by the farmer and others to notify the BCMS when the animal moves from one farm to another. The passports will also include details on the Special Beef Premium subsidy and will replace the Cattle Identification Document in England and Wales and the Cattle Control document in Scotland, Evans says.

A movement summary, contained in the passport, must be updated by each producer before and after every movement to ensure the summary is legible and to help the BCMS validate its records upon the animal's death.

Producers can report movements with a unique bar-code contained on self-adhesive labels. The labels are placed on the movement summary of the passport and on the movement cards, which are sent to the BCMS.

Producers also have the option of reporting movements to the BCMS by e-mail. This fast and easy method of reporting should help farmers, auctioneers and packing plant operators who need to report a large number of cattle movements, Evans says. It also provides breed associations and others the opportunity to act as agents by reporting cattle births, movement and deaths for their members.

When the animal goes to a licensed packer to be processed for human consumption, the passport must accompany it. After slaughter, the packer must complete a section in the passport on the death of the animal and give it to the official veterinary surgeon.

The passport is returned to the BCMS, which registers the animal's death and checks that the record of movement coincides with the notifications received direct from producers. If the records do not match or there is a gap in the animal's movement history, officials can be contacted.

The responsibility for enforcing the notification requirements falls to the local authorities and the State Veterinary Service coordinated by the BCMS. They will have the authority to restrict the movement of animals that belong to a producer who fails to make the necessary notifications. To assist enforcement, the CTS will produce reports on what animals should be on certain premises at any time.

Each producer on the system will receive periodic reports so they can check the accuracy of the information being stored, says Evans. Under European regulations, interested parties have access to the information subject to data protection laws.

Striving For Safe Meat For the nation's consumers, a British passport provides the assurance that they're buying good, safe meat.

Overall, the success of the BCMS could make it a template for the animal identification systems worldwide.

"The CTS offers great opportunities to the British cattle industry," says former UK Ag Minister Jack Cunningham. "The new system will make it possible to easily check where cattle have been during their lives, trace cattle more easily if there is a disease outbreak, give greater assurance to buyers about an animal's history and help rebuild confidence in British cattle and British beef at home and abroad."

Cost for the system is about $61 million (U.S.) Those monies, Cunningham says, ensure that the cost of running and enforcing the system is covered for the first year of operation.