Agriculture's animal ID program slipping: GAO

The federal government is lagging behind in its program to tag and track the nation's livestock and poultry to improve investigation of animal disease outbreaks, according to a new report from the Government Accountability Office.

The Agriculture Department has been developing the voluntary National Animal Identification System since 2003, but low participation and lack of guidance on technology are hindering success of the program, GAO said.

As of May 2007, nearly 28 percent of the places where livestock are raised have registered with the program, or 390,000 premises total. The goal is to eventually have at least 80 percent of the nation's farms registered to enable a disease specialist to track backwards to identify the source and path of the original infection that led to an outbreak of contagious animal disease, such as avian flu, mad cow disease or hoof and mouth disease.

Under the program, tens of millions of cattle, horses, chickens and other farm animals and poultry are to be identified and tagged. Technologies in use and being proposed for use include visual tags, Radio Frequency Identification computer chips and biometrics such as iris scans or DNA identification.

But many producers already have tagged their animals under pre-existing state programs, and there has been a lack of planning to integrate the new system with those existing systems, the GAO said. As a result, "producers are discouraged from investing in new ID technologies," the report said.

What's more, there is a lack of guidance on which technology to choose for the tags and how those technologies can be integrated and coordinated for tracking diseases. USDA lacks a "robust process for selecting and standardizing testing and ID tracking technologies," GAO said.

There also are concerns that the federal government has set no specific goals regarding the backtracking capabilities, and that there are inadequate requirements regarding data to be collected on the animals.

"The agency has not effectively addressed several issues that, if left unresolved, could undermine the program's ability to achieve the goal of rapid and effective animal disease traceback," GAO wrote.

About the Author

Alice Lipowicz is a staff writer covering government 2.0, homeland security and other IT policies for Federal Computer Week.

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