Improvements to an IT system that relies on postcards could have helped vets combat the UK's devastating foot and mouth outbreak, experts said this week.
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The Government's British Cattle Movement Service (BCMS) uses a combination of postcards and e-mails to monitor the movement of 10 million cattle on its database. The organisation has no central database for pigs although there are plans to establish one for sheep.
Farmers are allowed seven days to update their cattle records. One source has claimed a discrepancy of up to 30 cattle in one record kept by the BCMS. Such differences hinder the tracking of livestock movements.
David Crellin, BCMS head of operations, said, "We are governed by [European Union] regulations at the moment but the delay of up to seven days is something for the [Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food] to consider, particularly in the light of foot and mouth."
The BCMS claimed there have been no problems with the postcard system, although it admitted that cattle markets tend to e-mail livestock movements at the end of the working day. Crellin said, "We have to use this paper system for farmers that do not have PCs."
Agriculture experts have said more extensive databases could have helped officials in their efforts to trace the development of foot and mouth disease around the country.
A senior farming industry figure said, "A full, up-and-running database would not have hindered the spread of the disease but it would have improved the ability of vets to trace cattle movements."
Ministry officials have only been able to investigate 3,000 out of 10,000 locations in England which have a movement connection with an infected place, he claimed. "An accurate sheep database, for example, would greatly help to track these movements."
Keith Baker, former president of the British Veterinary Association, said changes in the ministry's IT would follow the outbreak and predicted that there would be a European requirement for a system to monitor pig-stock movement.
Crellin said the organisation's database could be extended to cover other livestock. "I agree that a database for sheep would help to track movements and this will come in the future," he said, "although the issue that we have is whether this will be used to monitor individual sheep or whole flocks."
Crellin acknowledged the importance of getting all livestock on a database, saying, "It will definitely make it easier to trace all outbreaks."
Jim Seton, head of farming and rural business at the Scottish Agricultural College, said, "Anything that aids tracing and speeds up containment would be good - although the extra cost to the industry for establishing a database for sheep and pigs would be a problem."
Based in Workington, Cumbria, the BCMS was set up in 1998. A computerised cattle tracing system was launched in September 1998. The computerised system was one of the European Union's pre-conditions for lifting the global ban on British beef following BSE. By the end of January the BCMS had issued more than 6.5 million cattle passports and received more than 13 million movement notifications, more than two-thirds by postcard.
Industry figures believe that IT systems may be re-evaluated in the aftermath of the foot and mouth outbreak. A senior industry figure said, "Undoubtedly, when we take stock after the outbreak there will be some lessons to be learnt and IT systems will assist the industry in the future."
Baker added, "As far as better IT is concerned, you need to take a cold, hard look to decide what lessons are to be learnt."
The BCMS is set to launch a Web site in the next few weeks which will enable farmers to report cattle movements online, as well as registering births and deaths.
Card-based system slows tracking effort