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The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affair’s systems for identifying and tracking the 25 million cattle, sheep and pigs in England have achieved their initial objectives, according to the National Audit Office. More could be done, however, to realise other potential benefits from the systems and reduce costs. Defra’s plans for updating its identification and tracking systems are ambitious, but steps are being taken to manage the risks; and, if successful, updating the systems offers valuable benefits.

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Identifying and tracking livestock help to safeguard human and animal health, assist control of farming subsidies and improve the farming industry’s commercial performance. The Department’s Cattle Tracing System, which tracks the movements of individual cattle throughout Great Britain, has helped to protect the public from BSE, for example, by helping to check the age of animals slaughtered for human consumption. The Animal Movements Licensing System, introduced following the 2001 outbreak of Foot and Mouth Disease, has not been tested by a serious disease outbreak, but the industry considers it robust and to have improved the tracking of sheep and pigs.

According to today’s report to Parliament, there are a number of obstacles to obtaining greater benefits, as follows.

  • There are inaccuracies in the information reported: for example, a quarter of postal applications for cattle passports include an error and movement records are incomplete for one in eight animals, with the result that the current location of two per cent of cattle is uncertain.
  • Movement information is not fully up to date, because the deadlines for reporting are not always respected and because most are still reported by post. For example, a fifth of cattle movements are notified after the 3 day deadline and around five per cent are reported over five weeks late.
  • There are increased costs to the government of at least £15 million a year as a result of the inaccuracy of information reported and keepers’ continued reliance on postal or e-mail notification.

Defra is responding to these concerns and is encouraging keepers to make greater use of electronic methods of notification, especially the internet service CTS Online, which can check information before it is allowed on the Cattle Tracing System.

The Department is modernising the Cattle Tracing System because new and better systems are needed to achieve planned economies in subsidy administration, to improve reliability and access to livestock information, and to support other key initiatives. Further investment in the Animal Movements Licensing System may be needed as a result of a draft Regulation published in December 2002 by the European Commission to require recording of the movements of individual sheep.

Defra plans to manage change to its systems in a £136 million ‘Livestock Identification and Tracing Programme’, culminating in the bringing together into a single Livestock Register of information currently held in separate livestock tracking, veterinary and subsidy computer systems. It would also provide scope for the introduction of electronic methods of identifying animals. The successful implementation of the programme presents significant challenges but the Department has strengthened the governance of the programme to manage the key risks- principally by establishing a high-level design authority to coordinate strategic decisions. Uncertainties include whether there will be sufficient take-up of e-services by farmers; and technical challenges, such as developing robust electronic identification systems for working farms and markets. In addition, both the Department and many in farming do not see the European Commission’s December 2002 proposals as practicable.

The NAO’s recommendations include providing and promoting easy to use electronic methods of reporting; setting targets for cleaning up data; and working with the industry to reduce errors in the information sent in by farmers. In developing and implementing the Livestock Identification and Tracing Programme, action should include distinguishing in the business case between minimum requirements and additional facilities; continuing to involve industry stakeholders in the design and governance arrangements; and reviewing local authorities’ responsibility for enforcing movement and animal health regulations.

"Information on the movement of animals around the country is of vital importance in the fight to prevent the spread of animal disease, all the more so when there is a serious outbreak. It is also vital to consumers confidence in the food that they eat. The animal identification and tracking systems in place at present have helped to protect public health but both systems are in need of improvement.

"For both of its current systems and in the implementation of its new Livestock Identification and Tracing Programme, Defra should work with the livestock industry to improve levels of data accuracy and encourage the use of online methods of communicating information."

Commenting on the report, head of the National Audit Office Sir John Bourn


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