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Livestock retinal scan

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High-tech device could be the future of livestock identification
AP Photos COJD801-803



Associated Press Writer

FORT COLLINS, Colo. (AP) - Using infrared light to photograph blood vessels in the eye sounds like the kind of far-out technology that ends up in James Bond films, not on western cattle ranches.

But ranchers have begun using a small, hand-held computer called an OptiReader to take retinal images of their cattle. The digital pictures are then stored in a database with information about the animal, such as color, weight or even genetic linage.

The blood vessel patterns in the eyes of cattle are unique and do not change over time so the pictures allow OptiReader users to track individual animals from birth to death.

Brian Bolton, a sales vice president for Optibrand, said the device also could help consumers: As people demand more information about the meat they buy, the ability to know where and how cattle were raised and what they were fed will become more important.

''A lot of what this is about is consumer confidence,'' he said.

The device originally was developed by ethics and business professors at Colorado State University as an alternative to hot-iron branding. It is being marketed by Optibrand in Fort Collins.

The OptiReader is a portable computer with a digital camera and Global Positioning System. The camera uses near-infrared light to photograph the retina, the backside of the eye that contains unique blood vessel patterns.

''They're more unique than human fingerprints,'' Bolton said. ''Even in clones, the eyes are different.''

During a recent demonstration, a cow was coerced into a corral, where the tube-shaped camera was held a few inches from her eye. A few seconds later, an image that resembled the branches of an oak tree appeared on the small OptiReader screen.

The process, which didn't seem to bother the animal, can be done at the most rustic farming operations, as long as a curtain is handy to keep sunlight out of the retina.

The image is stored in a secure database with information about the animal, such as vaccinations or feeding habits. The location, time and date are automatically recorded through the GPS, preventing false claims about the animal's heritage.

Once entered into the computer, images and information cannot be altered, Bolton said.

It was that level of security that attracted Rex Moore, president of Maverick Beef Ranch. The Denver-based organic beef company is the first American commercial operation to use the device, which has been tested in South America, New Zealand, Europe and South Africa.

''I really liked how they patented GPS with animal ID, how it says where in the U.S. (the animal) was scanned,'' said Moore, whose clients include the U.S. Olympic Training Centers. ''I can prove this animal was born at this ranch, it went to this particular feedlot and this slaughter house.''

Moore said he plans to use the OptiReader to help him track genetic information on the 25,000 cattle that go through his Colorado facilities each year. It could help him and his suppliers determine which genetic lineage produces the best cuts of meat.

The cost of the device - about $1,500 with computer software - is reasonable for his operation, Moore said. Scans will average about $3 per animal.

The price is similar to what Moore would spend on bar-coded tags and radio transponders attached to animals' ears. Those marking methods are less secure because they can get lost or switched, Moore said.

If used on a wider scale, the OptiReader could ease fears about livestock disease in U.S. cattle herds.

In May, when scientists in Canada found a case of mad cow disease, Democrats in Congress criticized the Agriculture Department and the meat industry for not having a system for tracking animals from farm to slaughterhouse.

Bolton said the Optibrand database could keep track of an animal's history, including where it was born and raised and information about other animals it came in contact with.

Not everyone thinks the current system used to track American cattle needs fixing.

Terry Fankhowser, executive vice president of the Colorado Cattlemen's Association, said animals are already tested before slaughter or after a suspicious death. He also noted that imports are banned from countries with mad cow disease problems or inadequate tracking programs.

But Fankhowser said technology in the beef industry is advancing. He said the OptiReader is one of many new products for livestock record, but it seems to be on the cutting edge.

''The technology is hugely new and innovative,'' he said. ''Retinal scanning security has been used, but this simply moves it to the bovine industry.''


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AP-WS-08-10-03 1333EDT

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