The federal government's newly relaunched second attempt at a national livestock identification program has come under criticism from producers and others who argue it's an onerous regulatory burden that unfairly singles out the small farm for regulation.

However, those who advocate for the program say some system is needed to help identify and stop a disease epidemic should it ever break out in U.S. herds. Why?

Veterinary researchers at University of California at Davis published a complex mathematical model in this month's issue of the scholarly journal Preventive Veterinary Medicine that simulated how difficult it would be to find and contain a case of Foot and Mouth Disease if it broke out somewhere among that state’s 22,000 dairy herds. Foot and Mouth Disease is a caused by a highly contagious virus, which typically affects cattle and sheep. It is notoriously difficult to contain because it can be spread not only via movement of infected animals, but also by farm vehicles, clothing, feed and other animals, including wildlife. When Great Britain suffered an outbreak in spring of 2001, an estimated 7 million sheep and cattle were eventually killed in an attempt to halt spread of the disease, eventually costing the country's industry some $13 billion.

The California researchers compared the predicted results of containment efforts assuming either an electronic tracing system, a paper-based tracing system of variable efficacy, or no tracing system at all.

Their results estimated that an electronic tracing system would reduce the average number of infected farms by anywhere from 8 percent to 81 percent, depending on how big the operation that first spread the disease was. The electronic system also simulated a decrease in the average length of the epidemic, from at least 200 days down to 42, if the initial infecting farm was a small dairy; from 110 days to 45 days if it were a large dairy. Even relying on a paper-based tracing system was better than no tracking system at all, the researchers found, although it was not as efficient as an electronic tracking system.

Impact of electronic ID in tracking disease outbreak


The United States’ current lack of a national animal movement database, the reasearc authors argue, leaves the food chain at the mercy of often inefficient state tracking systems that can’t share incompatible data or integrated technology, hindering their ability to efficiently track infected animals. According to USDA, it’s possible that with current systems an animal may be identified multiple times and yet still not be fully traceable. And, ironically, the past success of animal ID systems in identifying infected herds has discouraged some producers from actively participating in these programs. As a result, the U.S. traceability infrastructure is even less effective than it has been in the past.