A High-Tech Race To Corral Mad Cow

Radio chips and retinal scans vie for the job of tracking cattle from birth to butcher

A cow's eyes can be the window to her entire life story. At least, that's the theory of former farm manager Brian Bolton. His company, Optibrand Ltd. of Fort Collins, Colo., invented a device that farmers can use to scan their cows' retinas so they can track them reliably through every step of the beef production process. The pattern of veins in each cow's retina is unique. And the same goes for sheep -- even cloned ones, as Optibrand proved last year, when inventors there scanned the retinas of cloned twins of the late Dolly the sheep.

Optibrand is one of many companies angling in on an industry that is suddenly obsessed with tracking cows. Ever since the discovery of a single, Canada-bred mad cow in December, U.S. Agriculture Dept. Secretary Ann M. Veneman has made livestock identification a national priority. The mission grew more urgent this month, when scientists in Italy presented evidence that there may be more than one variant of mad cow disease.

The USDA's plan calls for perfecting technology to trace the source of any disease -- be it mad cow or Foot-and-Mouth disease -- within two days of an outbreak. The agency is recommending that all livestock in the U.S. be tagged with radio frequency identification devices (RFID) so they can be tracked as they move from farm to farm and ultimately to slaughterhouses. Information on each animal's origin and location would be stored in a national database. RFID is the technology of choice. But since the tags are subject to damage and tampering, retinal scanning, implantable computer chips, and rapid DNA matching may also prove necessary as backups. "We think there's room for all these technologies," says John F. Wiemers, the USDA's director of national animal identification.

WHERE'S THE BEEF? The disturbing fallout from the lone mad cow in the U.S. illustrates just how desperately an ID plan and rapid testing are needed. When the USDA closed its mad-cow investigation on Feb. 9, officials there admitted they could not find 11 cows that probably ate the same feed consumed by the infected cow. Their inability to prove that this animal was an isolated case could cost the industry $4 billion in lost sales this year due to export bans and plummeting beef prices, estimates Chris Hurt, an agricultural economist at Purdue University.

For tech innovators, this disaster may be an opportunity to get a foot in the barn door. Among the companies leading the effort to track cows is Texas Instruments Inc. (TXN ), which makes RFID technology for livestock in partnership with Dallas-based Allflex USA Inc. The system consists of a tag, about the size of a quarter, that's stapled to the base of the animal's ear. Each cow gets a numeric code that's programmed into the tag and then scanned with a handheld or stationary device every time the cow arrives at a new spot in the production chain. "It's like an electronic license plate," says Glenn Fischer, senior vice-presi-dent for Allflex.

Another option would be to encode identification data into microchips that are implanted in the cows' ears or under their skin. Like RFID tags, these chips could be read by handheld scanners. And some day they might provide other benefits. St. Paul (Minn.)-based Digital Angel Corp. (DOC ) sells implantable chips for livestock, as well as for pet cats and dogs. Now, its researchers are working on a chip that constantly monitors the animal's temperature to warn of disease.

One concern is that these chips might put an extra burden on slaughterhouses, which will have to make sure they don't migrate into the meat. "All you need is one chip in someone's burger and you've got a problem," says Brian Bolton, vice-president of marketing for Optibrand. With retinal scanning, he notes, the tracking technology is contained in the handheld reader. It takes a tiny picture of a cow's retina and then links it to that animal's computerized record. The scanners, which can also read RFID tags, have global positioning receivers built into them so they can automatically stamp each scan with a location record. In December, the nation's third-largest beef processor, Swift & Co., adopted Optibrand's system.

The future of farming will come at a great expense. A national ID program could cost $600 million over five years, yet Washington's proposed 2005 budget allocates only $33 million. Tracking technology will cost the average producer between $5 and $20 per head of cattle, depending on which systems they choose. Still, "this is a cost our industry needs to undertake," says Ken Conway, owner of GeneNet LLC, an alliance of beef producers, many of whom are already using RFID. As more bad news wafts out of America's pastures, technology may be the best hope for restoring safety and confidence.

By Arlene Weintraub in Los Angeles, with Janet Ginsburg in Chicago

— With assistance by Jane Ginsburg

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