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col Canadian outbreak shows holes in U.S. indentification

Within days of Canada's announcement that a single cow in Alberta had been diagnosed with bovine spongiform encephalopathy, BSE or mad cow disease, the country's Food Inspection Agency had located and quarantined 17 herds in three Canadian provinces that had been in contact with the cow or had consumed the same feed as the stricken animal.

In less than a week, the FIA had ordered nearly 400 of the quarantined cattle slaughtered and tested for BSE. All tests were negative. Canada's rapid response was in the nation's and its beef producers self-interest: the country exports over 90 percent of its beef to the world, more than half, or about 1 billion pounds, of it to the United States alone.

The speedy action also saved the hide American cattlemen would have lost if, as headlines proclaimed, "North America's first case of mad cow" had not been addressed swiftly and conclusively.

How did Canada do it?

Part of the answer lies in Canada's mandatory national livestock identification program, implemented last July. Another part rests in the provinces' time-tested, time-proven cattle brand registration and inspection rules. A big part also resides in the national government's damn-the-torpedoes style of using both systems to uncover any potential mad cow carriers.

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A final, crucial piece was (and remains) the crisis management plan Canada used to keep the worried public and nervous markets immediately and fully informed of all news during the maddening week. A closer look at those separate pieces highlights the many holes in the U.S. system to track and locate American livestock during a similar calamity.

Canada's mandatory national ID program, in effect just 11 months, was not very helpful in tracing farm-to-farm movements of the Albertan mad cow prior to July 2002. But the program, because it requires all animals to carry a bar coded tag when they leave the farm, laid out an easily followed trail to locate cattle that had been in contact with the BSE cow since mid-2002.

The United States has no similar system. Homeland Security boss Tom Ridge favors a national ID system for American livestock as a key component for overall national food safety and food security. Congress, however, has yet to act.

Private efforts, though, are under way. Last October the National Institute for Animal Agriculture (formerly the Livestock Conservation Institute, on the web at www.animalagricultre.org) offered a phased-in ID plan "to ensure the U.S. has an adequate animal identification system that supports the financial viability of animal agriculture (and) maintains the health and biosecurity of the U.S. herd."

Simultaneously, the group called on the U.S. Department of Agriculture to use its plan to establish a federal livestock ID program. On May 22 -- just two days after the Canadian mad cow news broke -- USDA took up the challenge and invited several livestock industry people to serve on its new National Animal Identification Development Team. Funny how disaster focuses the mind.

A second element of the Canadian response, provincial brand registration and inspection, aided investigators to quickly track pre-July 1, 2002, movements of the Alberta cow.

Several, but not all, U.S. states have identical laws. Should a disease scare hit one of the states without branding laws, though, tracing the animal's movement could be much slower and far more devastating to U.S. meat producers.

Yet if USDA's response to -- God forbid -- the first whiff of mad cow here is as divisive and gut-busting as its pathetic performance with Country of Origin Labeling, thousands of producers will be run out of business and millions of consumers will run to for the exits.

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Alan Guebert is a syndicated columnist from Delavan, Ill.

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