A Texas animal health official says a national animal identification program will help the livestock industry stay ahead of threatening diseases that could affect farms nationwide.

“It (the identification system) enables us to protect animal health in our country as best as we possibly can,” Bob Hillman, executive director of the Texas Animal Health Commission, told beef producers at the 43rd Blackland Income Growth Conference recently in Waco.

Though a mandatory animal identification program has yet to be established, the animal health commission, on a voluntary basis, is already issuing premises identification numbers.

The commission assigns premises identification numbers to farms, ranches, feedlots, livestock markets and other locations with an address and having livestock handling facilities.

Producers can go to the Web at http://www.tahc.state.tx.us and sign up electronically, or call 800-550-8242.

Approximately 200 premises identification numbers have already been issued statewide, Hillman said. However, electronic ear tags, database infrastructure and other aspects of the system are still in development, hinging on the amount of federal money allocated for the system.

Electronic ear tags could be ready for distribution to those with premises identification numbers by mid-year, Hillman says. By 2006 mandatory premises identification could be enforced and “realistically 2008” before required participation in the animal identification program is implemented, he says.

If an outbreak of the highly contagious foot-and-mouth disease were to hit the United States' beef industry, the identification program would allow animal health officials “to get ahead of the disease.”

“We've got to have that ability,” he says. The goal of the national identification system, in cases such as foot-and mouth disease, is to identify within 48 hours any suspect animals and all places they have been.

Consumer confidence and strengthening food safety are other advantages the program would bring.