Source verification, or traceback, of cattle is quickly becoming standard policy in Europe, primarily due to disease and food-safety concerns. And interest in source verification is growing in the United States, particularly as various companies, cooperatives and alliances begin marketing branded, value-added beef products in a global marketplace.

Researchers at Colorado State University have developed a process with the potential to make individual identification and traceback of cattle easy, foolproof and inexpensive. The process is retinal vascular imaging, in which computer analysis of the pattern of blood vessels on an animal’s retina provides a permanent identification record of the animal. CSU researcher Bruce Golden says that each animal’s retinal image is unique and remains the same from birth through maturity. The method, he says, is fraud-proof, rapid, inexpensive and permanent. Computer software used in the process essentially converts the image into a digital “barcode.” The animal’s retinal image becomes part of a searchable database. Future owners of the animal can scan its retina, download the image to search the database and access the prior ownership and management history of the animal. Users potentially can link the scanning equipment to a GPS unit that would provide fraud-proof time and location coding along with the image. Dr. Golden estimates that the service could cost producers as little as $0.60 per scan.

Retinal imaging, Dr. Golden says, offers several advantages over other identification technologies. Electronic ear tags are more costly, more subject to loss and could be subject to fraud or tampering. DNA analysis also is more expensive, time consuming and subject to tampering.