Tim Fulton

Electronic record-keeping for sheep mobs should be much simpler than monitoring individual beef cattle and deer, Beef + Lamb New Zealand says.

The industry body is working on eMob, a business case for including sheep in National Animal Identification Tracing (Nait).

After a recent select committee hearing on Nait amendments, Federated Farmers Nait spokesman, Miles Anderson, said there has been confusion about Federated Farmers’ positions on the potential inclusion of sheep in Nait.

Neither organisation was supportive of including sheep in Nait “until the current system is fit for purpose and easy to use with the animals already included,” he said.

B+LNZ manager, technical policy, Chris Houston, told Country-Wide there were no plans to require individual sheep tracing, nor would there be ear tagging. Rather, if Beef + Lamb and government approved, farmers would be asked to make Animal Status Declarations online.

Switching from paper to online records would help farmers and officials to respond to animal health and food safety emergencies. NZ was the only major sheep-farming country that didn’t have a single, shared electronic database for locating sheep flocks and tracking their movement, he said.

If a sheep disease like foot and mouth (FMD) hit now, authorities would have to visit every farm, using a mixed bag of paper documents to find stock and track where they’ve come from, or were set to go.

Responders would likely have no option but to get on the phone to a farmer, provided contact details were correct or to turn up for a visit. Tracing might be possible but it would be too slow.

“If you think about where we’d be at in the early stages of a response to a fast-moving viral infection, for example foot and mouth disease, that puts you in a potentially weak spot.”

A centralised, electronic database would allow authorities to quickly find a risk movement, like infected stock crossing Cook Strait.

Houston said there was no reason to tag and trace individual sheep, because sheep diseases like FMD moved so fast that the only real concern was tracking its spread between mobs.

In contrast, monitoring of individual animals was well suited to beef cattle because diseases like Mycoplasma bovis were hard to detect and moved relatively slowly.

The Red Meat Profit Partnership, which includes B+LNZ and the Ministry for Primary Industries, funded animal health agency OSPRI to develop a prototype and a pilot trial for electronic animal status declarations (ASDs).

It showed electronic ASD was do-able for sheep, Houston said.

“What we’re talking about here is traceability of groups of animals from one place to another, without involving ear tags. We don’t need to assign ear tags to know that my farm moved 20 stock to your farm.”

Electronic tracing would require statutory declarations about stock movements and could also include voluntary questions – like those currently found on the second page of a paper-based ASD form.

The new system could be app-based, meaning a farmer gets out their phone, logs into their account, enters information about a flock, and answers questions about possible exposure to other animals or agri-chemicals, for example.

There would also likely be a request for information about places where the animals were traded. The information would remain confidential, with privacy firewalls preventing access by third parties.

Meat companies already see farmers’ ASD information, because it’s paper of their requirements as a processor of food for human consumption. But work would be done to ensure that electronic records were sure – accessible only by those who needed it for statutory reasons.

“There would be absolutely no access for any other commercial entity to the information that is collected by an app, for another commercial company, outside any of the statutes,” Houston said.

Nait was also developed to allow the inclusion of other species and electronic ASDs would be regulated under Nait law, rather than the Animal Products Act, as they are now. The Animal Products Act was tailored to food safety and market assurance, yet the main reason for eMob was better biosecurity and traceability.

“Where you land basically, is that the Animal Products Act is not a suitable piece of legislation for a traceability system. That’s what the Nait Act is for,” Houston said.