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Livestock retinal ID holds promise


Fort Collins, Colo.-The molten red glow of the iron brand may be fading. All eyes are on a new form of animal identification now in its final development stages at Colorado State University.

Fort Collins, Colo.-The molten red glow of the iron brand may be fading. All eyes are on a new form of animal identification now in its final development stages at Colorado State University.

No two retinas are alike. It is the premise behind a new branding system officials tout as more humane. The retinal digital camera records blood vessels behind the optic nerve that serve as a sort of fingerprint.

Ralph Switzer, a finance professor and instructor of veterinary jurisprudence, and Bernard Rollin, an animal sciences professor who teaches veterinary ethics, envisioned a more humane way to identify livestock.

Teaming with Dr. Bruce Golden, an animal sciences professor, with the help of a $16,000 investment funded by a CSU experiment station, the three invented the Optibrand System.

"I was interested in an alternative to hot-iron branding both for the sake of the animals and the sake of the industry," says Rollin, who has sought a different "brand" for 15 years. "This society is not going to tolerate third-degree burns much longer. I looked at all kinds of alternatives, including noseprinting and dyes. Then I hit on the retina. We did a little research and I got some animal science people involved."

Eye never lies

Pivotal to the research project: the retina never changed, signaling that no two retinas are alike.

"This Optibrand system is used in the same way as iron branding but is more humane as it only uses the retinal vascular eye pattern (RVP), or what we call the 'eye print,' to identify the animals," says Switzer, the company's chief financial director.

Golden devised the name Optibrand, with 'opti' meaning eye and 'brand' representing a way to symbolize branding.

Visual details

Integral to the system is a retinal digital camera that photographs the retinal image behind the optic nerve of the animal until it captures a clear, precise image. The RVP is a pattern of distinctly different blood vessels, and like the fingerprint of a human being, it is unchanging from birth to death. In the same animal, each RVP differs from eye to eye, just like each person's set of fingerprints.

The digital camera only allows the image to be captured at one angle, which makes it identical to every other image taken of the same animal at previous or future locations. Each image takes less than two seconds to be captured into the computer system's memory, which organizes data about the animal. After the image is captured digitally and linked to the animal's precise location with the use of a global positioning system (GPS) in the camera, it is sent to the Optibrand Company through the system.

The output is a unique identification file for each animal. Measurements of the retinal image structures are converted to a number, as are the GPS geographical data. The numbers are assigned a date and then put together into a file which becomes the final identification of each animal.

The date, time and GPS location information is encrypted to prevent tampering and logged into a permanent database of each animal's record.

Only one 'brand'

The Optibrand System is the only one of its kind on the market.

With the system, the livestock industry can now trace animals easily all the way from their farms of origin to the packing plants where they are processed, say its inventors. The tracing process can not only ensure food safety but also aid in the control and spread of disease.

Optibrand additionally enables veterinarians to permanently store health and treatment history for individual animals. The identification can be offered by clinics as a special option for clients.

The Optibrand system is expected to be available this month.

Foreseeing the future

The company says it has already conducted some research on pigs for the Pig Improvement Company, an international swine genetics company.

"They are interested in the eye identification as an alternative to tattooing, because it's less traumatic," says Rollin.

The plan is to someday penetrate the companion animal sector.

"Eventually, we'll try to develop a universal system for companion animals. Because over the years if you have talked to shelter managers, they have said that the No. 1 thing for the welfare of companion animals they'd like to see is permanent identification.

"In the case of companion animal veterinarians, I would hope eventually it would bring lots of people into the veterinarian's office who in the past would not have gone," says Rollin. "The machine is not going to be terribly expensive. (He estimates less than $1,000.) Basically you can bring your animal or a stray in to a veterinarian, they'll read the eye and compare it to the database. I think it will be a tremendous plus for veterinary practitioners."

Visit http://www.opti-brand.com for more information about the company.

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