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SPRINGFIELD - When an Illiopolis plastics factory exploded two years ago, Colleen O'Keefe dispatched an Illinois Department of Agriculture animal welfare response team.

The team's task was to find livestock farms in the path of a toxic chemical plume and warn animal owners. However, they didn't know where the farms were.

Team members talked with county Farm Bureau officials and started driving down country roads. In the end, they only got to about half the existing farms within range.

O'Keefe, IDA food safety division manager, said Friday the Illiopolis response scenario should not repeat itself. She and Dan Wilcox, IDA information technology specialist, demonstrated the department's geographic information system at IDA headquarters in Springfield.

"Producer confidentiality is huge," said O'Keefe, who noted only 2,000 of the state's 18,000 to 20,000 livestock operations have registered their locations with a premise identification number.

"The information is nothing more than we could get from the Internet," she said. "It will only be used by the department. And it's excluded from public access through the Freedom of Information Act according to the Homeland Security Act."

The livestock premise identification program aims to provide a quick way to trace livestock from the farm to the dinner plate in case of disease or agriterrorism. The ultimate goal is to individually identify each animal and trace it back to the farm within 48 hours after initial diagnosis.

So far, premise and animal identification remain voluntary. U.S. Department of Agriculture officials, however, want to make the programs mandatory by 2008. USDA officials want 25 percent of farms to have premise numbers by the end of the year.

Livestock producers remain concerned about confidentiality of the identification database. Some fear information about their farms could fall into hands of anti-livestock groups or invite criminal activity.

Secure database

Wilcox demonstrated IDA's GIS program maintained in a secure database accessible only by state and federal agriculture department officials. The data appears as a series of maps and aerial photographs of livestock operations. Photographs were not shown.

"In case of an emergency, we could send the information to trained first responders, like veterinarians, via the Web. Otherwise the data will not be on the Web because of security issues," said Wilcox.

Philip Nelson, Illinois Farm Bureau president, said the demonstration revealed the complexity of the issue. He noted the system appears to satisfy concerns about confidentiality.

"We need more than 10 percent of livestock operations registered. The maps are only as good as the information on them. There's been a push in our organization toward mandatory animal identification, but the program's cost has still not been addressed. Everybody in the industry needs to be involved in bearing the cost," said Nelson.

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