Ear Tags Track Animals, Protect Food Supply

Ear Tags Track Animals, Protect Food Supply

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John Hollenhorst ReportingA new high-tech program to protect your food supply got off the ground today in the unlikeliest of places -- an elk ranch. It's a controversial new method of keeping mad-cow and other diseases from getting to the supermarket meat counter.

You may not know it, but magnificent elk often wind up on the dinner table at fancy restaurants in Utah. Now, the elk are getting dressed up for the occasion, with pierced ears.

Larry Lewis, Utah Dept. of Agriculture & Food: “This is a pilot project and the elk industry volunteered to participate in it. That’s why we’re here.”

Each elk gets a computer chip so it can be tracked electronically wherever it goes, all the way to the slaughterhouse. Eventually, every head of livestock --cattle, sheep or elk-- may be tracked this way. It's a lesson learned in 2003 when a cow tested positive for mad-cow disease.

Larry Lewis: “It took thousands of people four months to find out what other cows were associated with that problem cow, and find them and eliminate them from the system.” This should shorten that to 48 hours.”

Ron Greene, Elk Rancher: “We’re able to assure the public that we have safe animals to consume in the meat market.”

The program is not without controversy. Some ranchers would prefer not to be involved unless the data is kept confidential.

Ron Greene: “The elk industry is very supportive. Some of the cattle guys, I think, are a little bit hesitant.”

A proposed state law would keep the tracking data under wraps, except when state officials determine there's a need to release it. Sponsor Craig Buttars is himself a dairy farmer.

Rep. Craig Buttars, R-Lewiston: “There’s no intent with this legislation to cover up any kind of animal disease and keep that from the public.”

Claire Geddes, Legislative Watchdog: “You know, I don’t want to be in a position to have to trust them.”

Self-described legislative watchdog Claire Geddes says an open book is crucial.

Claire Geddes, Legislative "Watchdog": “If there is a problem, they would know immediately if there was some contamination of your meat or poultry or whatever. And if that information wasn’t passed on, it could be dire to the public.”

Supporters of the secrecy law say it will keep terrorists and animal rights activists from getting private business information.

Larry Lewis: “If someone was bent on causing havoc, having easy access to the data would help them plan any kind of activity.”

The secrecy bill so far has had easy sailing in the state legislature.

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