Until the cows come home

Until the cows come home

By RON FRIEDMAN
October 20, 2009 23:28
4 minute read.
kibbutz feeding cow 248.88

kibbutz feeding cow 248.88. (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski [file])

Ness Ziona-based biotech company Bactochem hopes to make livestock theft a thing of the past, using a patented system for genetic tracing. Once the Knesset bill is approved, Bactochem scientists plan a nationwide genetic databank that will be able to conclusively identify stolen cattle. According to the Israel Cattle Growers Association's Doobi Weiss, hundreds of bulls, cows and calves are stolen every year. In the past four years alone, more than 7,000 cattle have been rustled across the country. With prices ranging from NIS 400 for a newborn calf to NIS 25,000 for a full-grown breeding bull, the databank has the potential to save cattlemen a lot of money. "The idea is to obtain genetic samples from every head of cattle in Israel and put it in our system. After we do that, a process that could be completed in several months, we will have the ability to collect a sample from any animal suspected as stolen and within hours find out who it rightfully belongs to," Guy Evron, product manager at Bactochem, said on Tuesday. "In the past we have been able to identify a cattle thief by the hairs that were left in the back of his truck," he said. Bactochem recently identified a stolen bull worth NIS 16,000, Evron said. "The grower invested NIS 300 in genetic sampling and saved himself thousands of shekels in stolen property." According to Dr. Aviv Kahana, the company's molecular laboratory director, obtaining the sample is quick and painless for the animal. "All we do is place a plastic tag on the animal's ear. The piercing tool takes a tiny sample of the animal's DNA and that is enough to create a full genetic mapping of the animal." The process, which was developed in cooperation with the Industry, Trade and Labor Ministry's chief scientist and the Agriculture Ministry's Agricultural Research Organization, was researched for three years and perfected a year ago. Today the databank contains close to 25,000 samples, all conveniently stored in a small room in the laboratory, without the need for special conditions like vacuum or freezing. "The information on all the animals is also stored digitally in our computers," Kahana said. "Our vision is to have a nationwide databank. Israel is home to roughly 200,000 head of cattle, both for dairy and for meat. With a complete databank in place, the definite ability to identify theft should be enough to prevent it," said Evron. While Weiss recognizes the potential of the genetic tracing system, he qualifies its efficiency. "The databank will only be useful if the law is passed and all growers are obligated to sample their animals, but even then it can only be used if the cows are actually found," he said. A large portion of thefts, especially those in the South, are committed by Palestinians who cross over from the West Bank and steal 15 young calves in a night and take them across the Green Line, Weiss said. "In those cases the chances of recovering the stolen property are minuscule." But theft prevention is not the only use for genetic tracing. Kahana explained that it can also provide a lot of information about the animals that can be useful for sellers and consumers. "We can retrieve a sample from any piece of meat and if it's in our databank, we can tell where it was grown, who its owner was and who its parent are. This can be useful if there is a beef recall caused by an illness like mad cow disease or if you want to know for certain that the steak you're eating comes from a select breed like it says on the menu," Kahana said. Because there are no identical twins in cows, the chances of error using this system are extremely low, 1 in 43,000,000 to be exact. Evron said that such probability is as close to 100 percent accuracy as you can get because there aren't that many cows in the world. Where they might have a problem, though, is if cloning of animals becomes a standard process, as clones share the exact same DNA. "As far as I know, nobody is talking about wide scale cloning, so we should be fine," Evron said. Cattle are only the beginning of the story, though. Already Bactochem scientists are working on a similar system for registering horses, and several cities have approached them in an effort to use genetic tracing to identify dogs whose owners don't pick up after them. During the past year and a half Bactochem has been running a pilot project in Petah Tikva. Owners have their dogs sampled when they go to the veterinarian to register them. Once the municipality has a record of the dogs' DNA, all an inspector has to do is take a sample of the dog's feces in a test tube and send it to the lab for identification. "The municipalities will be able to make up their expenses in fines," said Evron.


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