Animal ID Moves Forward

United States Department of Agriculture officials announced at the ID/INFO Expo 2005 that they are pursuing an industry-funded animal tracking database to trace the movement of animals in the event of a disease outbreak. The privatization of the database raised concerns about funding and security among those in attendance. Agriculture representatives from New Mexico, Colorado, and New York provided updates on their equine identification pilot projects during the Expo, which was held in Chicago, Ill., in September. Current and future identification technologies were also a hot topic.

In May 2005, the USDA drafted a strategic plan for a National Animal Identification System (NAIS). The purpose of the NAIS was to establish a standardized numeric system that allows an animal's movement within a 48-hour period to be traced. This would allow the animal's movement to be quickly traced back in the event of a disease outbreak.

"The USDA made it very clear that the industry is going to fund the database," said Ben Richey, spokesperson for the National Institute for Animal Agriculture (NIAA). "The USDA will not have anything to do with the database's creation or funding, but they will have the right to access it. The USDA wants a single interface capable of accessing the database."

The database's purpose is to allow for limited access to state veterinarians, USDA officials, and state health officials to effectively trace the movements of disease-infected animals within a 48-hour window. The movement database would contain four elements of data (individual animal number, premises number, data, and time of arrival at an event—sale, show, breeding, etc.). The database must be developed and housed by a consortium of all aspects of the livestock industry.

The problem, Amy Mann, director of health and regulatory affairs for the American Horse Council and vice chair of the NIAA Equine Health Committee, said was that, "There isn't an entity like that out there." The database is something that will be dealt with in the future--for now, the USDA is concentrating on registering livestock premises and individual animals.

Currently, the NAIS doesn't include a section on equine identification, but it is expected that equine organizations will voluntarily develop their own systems under the parameters set by NAIS.

The NAIS will require a unique identification number for each premises and horse that is a part of the program. Current methods of identification (DNA, tattoos, brands, Smart Cards that look like drivers' licenses, and microchips) would be incorporated in the program.

Identification Technology

The ID/INFO Expo 2005 showcased a vast array of technology with potential uses within the national identification system. Several states involved in pilot projects are currently using International Organization of Standards (ISO)-compliant radio frequency identification device (RFID) microchips and Smart Cards.

There are several types of RFID chips in use. Currently, two frequencies are being used in horses, 125 kHz and 134.2 kHz. The chip scanners are not fully interchangeable. Some scanners are not able to read the 125 kHz microchips that contain encrypted data. Instead, the scanner will display a message stating the chip is encrypted and the animal is not able to be identified without the use of a scanner equipped to read the encryption. There is a push by industry leaders to use a standardized frequency of 134.2 kHz. This would allow officials with ISO-compliant readers to be able to readily identify animals.

Each animal would have a unique number called an AIN. According to Mann, the AIN is just a serial number for the animal and doesn't reveal any information about the animal or link the animal to premises. Once a database is established, the AIN will assist officials in tracing the animal's movement in the event of an outbreak. 

Smart Cards will contain the animal's data (name, breed, gender, age, registered number, owner contact information, premises ID, brands, markings, health certificate number, and test results and dates taken). Card readers will store the information on a central database updated via the Internet. Only authorized users will be able to access and change the information on the cards. Different levels of authorized users will include state veterinarians, accredited veterinarians, brand inspectors, and breed organizations.

On the forefront of technology are things such as bio-thermal scanners that can read the animal's body temperature from a microchip in the animal's body. This can alert officials of a potential illness in an animal and appropriate measures can be taken to isolate the animal.

Iris scans using digital technology record patterns of blood vessels in the horse's eyes for analysis by a computer program for individual animal identification. The image, called an iris code, contains approximately 512 bytes of data and can be identified within seconds.

According to Mann, High-frequency radio transponders are also being considered. The higher frequency (about 1,000 times the current frequency being considered) would allow the microchip to be read at a greater distance and through materials such as metal. So, a trailer of horses passing through an identification point (for instance, a racetrack entrance) could be read without the need to stop, saving time.

"We need to allow for newer and more efficient technology, but still meet the needs of the NAIS," Mann said. "We are not there yet, but there are things coming down the road."

Pilot Projects

Federal and state-funded pilot projects were established this year as field trials to evaluate different methods for a national animal identification system. Representatives from New Mexico, New York, and Colorado presented their experiences and challenges encountered in their states' pilot projects.

New Mexico, which is currently a brand inspection state, in coordination with the New Mexico Racing Commission, plans to incorporate microchips as a way of identification. "We will start with a 1,000-plus horses," said Dave Fly, DVM, of the New Mexico Livestock Board. The initiative, which Fly said will begin relatively soon, will involve putting microchips in 2-year-old racing Thoroughbreds.

Thoroughbreds are required to have an identifying tattoo underneath their upper lip, but Fly said those can be altered. "I recently saw a photo of a horse that had his tattoo removed with a laser," Fly said.

Brands are a way of identifying the animal's premises, but they do not identify the individual animal. It doesn't allow for the tracking of an animal or lend to the goal of a 48-hour trace-back system.

"I get the impression that we are not to far off from everyone starting to microchip," Fly said. He said he has had some initial resistance to the microchip program.

"New Mexico is a pretty conservative state," explained Fly. "We have a lot of people who are worried about their horses being tracked by satellite. We tell them that this (the microchip) is just a reader. Through education and outreach programs, we are starting to gain the confidence of the owners."


New York offered to microchip horses at no charge to the owners. The state's program, however, goes beyond identifying premises and animals. The state is concentrating on an educational program for horse owners.

The program teaches basic health care needs and management for horses. Using a farm health certification program, state officials want to increase horse safety by promoting health consciousness in the industry. State certification, which is free to premises owners, offers consumers a list of pre-approved, well-managed facilities.

Colorado is incorporating an equine Smart Card. Carl Heckendorf, DVM, director of livestock disease and animal health for the Colorado Department of Agriculture, explained that the cards will include health and identification information about the animal that can easily be read at locations such as shows and sales. Each time the card is accessed, the animal's location will be recorded in a database. The data will allow simple trace back and notification in the event of a disease outbreak. The card would be in addition to brands, microchips, and other sources of equine identification in the state.

Wayne Cunningham, DVM, state veterinarian for the Colorado Department of Agriculture, said, "We are trying to tie together all the forms of identification to provide an added value for owners to have the Smart Card."

About the Author

Chad Mendell

Chad Mendell is the former Managing Editor for TheHorse.com .

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