Feed was the source of the first U.S. case of mad cow disease, in 2003, and the mad cow epidemic that devastated English cattle herds in the 1990s; steps have since been taken to ban sources of infection in cattle food.
The United States is one of the few beef-producing countries that does not have a mandatory animal identification system that enables it to trace a cow from birth through the slaughterhouse and beyond, though a proposal has been in the works for years.
“If we discover that this case was part of a larger outbreak, we might not be able to find all the animals in that cohort that were exposed to the same feed,” said Sarah Klein of the Center for Science in the Public Interest. “If the feed is not the problem, then this is yet another warning shot. The question becomes: Do you wait for the big outbreak before you can justify the need for a system to track these animals?”
The United States has had three cattle cases before, in December 2003, June 2005 and more recently in March 2006, when a cow on an Alabama farm tested positive for the disease. In the Alabama case, the government could not identify the cow’s herd of origin or determine its exact age.
The fourth incident, in California, “clearly highlights the need for a comprehensive national animal identification system,” Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.) said in a statement Wednesday. “We were lucky to identify this case, but we must invest in a strong national identification system that has the potential to improve animal traceability.”
A study by Kansas State University last year found that six of the eight largest exporters of beef have adopted a mandatory national cattle identification system — but not the United States. Even the tiny country of Botswana tracks its cattle from 3 months of age with a unique number lodged in a microchip, the World Organization for Animal Health reported. In New Zealand, consumers can learn everything about the animal a piece of steak came from through a barcode on its packaging, Klein said.
Several attempts to come up with a national identification system for livestock in this country have failed due to strong resistance by segments of the cattle industry, which viewed it as a costly government intrusion, the Congressional Research Service reported in 2010.
In its most recent proposal, the Agriculture Department would allow each state to come up with its own identification system for livestock. If the cattle cross state lines, however, the USDA would then require tagging of the animal.