Here's how the UK moved down the individual ID trail.

The ID protocol is strict. Each calf must be marked with double eartags at birth. Producers then apply for a passport with numbers corresponding to the eartags.

The United Kingdom (UK) has used systems to identify farm animals for centuries. Recently, national policies on disease control, especially bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), have led to a succession of record keeping and animal identification (ID) requirements for farmers.

The first fully national ID cattle system was introduced in 1953 as part of tuberculosis eradication. All cattle not already registered with a breed society had to be identified with an eartag or tattoo.

Later, the system was expanded to include “movement books” kept by farmers and inspected by local authorities. The system grew with computerization. ID programs also evolved to help identify livestock for subsidy payments made to farmers.

Handwritten farmer records, however, were difficult to verify. Tracing exercises were hampered by inaccurate records and unrecorded removal of eartags from imported cattle.

“In principle, record keeping should have made it possible to follow an animal's movements and identify the farm of origin,” says Graham Lewis of the UK's Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (MAFF). “This was important for disease control, since it was easier to prevent or control an epidemic if the course of the disease could be identified.”

Chasing BSE

With the emergence of BSE in the mid-1980s, the adequacy of existing ID and tracing regimes came into question. That accelerated as fear developed of a possible link between BSE and human deaths caused by variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease.

The disease reached its peak in 1992 when 37,280 new BSE cases were diagnosed in the UK. In March 1996, the EU banned the export of any UK beef or beef products.

The average incubation period of BSE is five years. Very rarely do animals under three years old display symptoms. This suggests cattle in England first became infected in the early 1980s.

The long incubation period of BSE and its unpredictable nature called into question the requirement under the old ID laws to keep movement records for only three years. Changes made in 1990 require farmers to keep ID and movement records for 10 years.

“Passports” And Databases

Another expansion required cattle farmers in England, Scotland and Wales to provide details of births, deaths and breeding records on their herds by January 1995. They also were required to send movement documents with cattle going to market. This led to establishing the British Cattle Movement Service (BCMS) “passport” system in use today.

“Eartags and passports providing all cattle a unique identity are issued to farmers,” says Fiona Jayatilaka, BCMS corporate service manager based in Workington, Cumbria. “Movement details are kept manually on the passport, which stays with the animal throughout its life.”

The ID protocol is strict. Each calf must be marked with double eartags at birth. The farmer then applies for a passport with numbers corresponding to the eartags. Passports come with a set of checkbook-style coupons. The coupons are filled out and sent to BCMS each time the animal changes hands.

For example, in a private sale, a seller must inform BCMS about the movement “off” his holding, while the buyer must tell BCMS about the movement “on” his holding. The BCMS database also traces imported cattle, which also must have passports.

Animals are accepted for slaughter only with a valid passport. More than 5.5 million passports have been issued, tracing more than 9 million cattle movements, since BCMS became fully operational in September 1998.

Cattle tracing doesn't stop at the packing plant, however. The passport numbers are dovetailed with a computerized beef labeling system that allows anyone to trace a particular load, lot or even package of beef all the way back to the farm of origin, says Jayatilaka. Voluntary beef labeling became compulsory on Jan. 1.

The UK system follows EU-wide rules on beef labeling. The rules are intended to meet consumers' concern that cattle and the meat from them should be more easily traceable.

Lack of a central database limited the system's use in controlling animal diseases, says Mark Filley, a member of the BSE Inquiry Unit at MAFF.

“The development of a movement database also became a precondition for the re-establishment of the UK's beef export market,” he adds.

Recently, the BCMS passport system was integrated with the Cattle Tracing System (CTS) database. This online service allows farmers to register new calves and apply for passports. Along with government regulators, producers can use the CTS to monitor the movement of an individual animal throughout its lifetime.

Covering The Cost

The BCMS is trying to make the task of keeping records and identifying animals as producer-friendly as possible, says Jayatilaka. The goal is to use technology to reduce the number of on-farm visits as suspect animals are traced.

“It's natural for farmers to see these things as a hassle,” she says. “But for the most part, they accept it as part of the bureaucracy involved with dealing with the disease problems at hand.”

With a staff of 560, BCMS functions have replaced ID and cattle movement control duties of local animal health authorities.

The only direct cost to the farmer is the eartag. The government paid start-up costs and so far is covering the running costs.

The UK won't impose charges on producers until 2003 or 2004 at the earliest, Jayatilaka adds.

A person guilty of obstruction under the UK cattle movement system regulations can face a maximum fine of $3,400, three months in prison or both.

ID and tracing is something that's there to stay.

“It's an important element in increasing confidence in the British beef market and containing BSE on this continent,” says Daniel Clarkson, MAFF team member reviewing BCMS's effectiveness.

“BCMS is essential in long-term commitment to protecting animal and public health — and the effective administration of subsidy schemes.”