CALLS for the introduction of electronic identification and electronic data transfer for cattle, sheep, pigs and goats have been welcomed by Defra.

The recommendations, put forward by the industry steering group, include developing a central database for sheep and electronic data transfer to reduce the paper burden on livestock farmers.

Potential benefits include improved public and animal health protection and disease control; better business efficiency; less red tape verification of headage-based subsidy claims, and increased consumer confidence in home and export markets.

The report advises, however, that it may be some time before electronic readers are capable of coping with the range of animals at farms, markets and abattoirs, even though the technology exists to support on-farm electronic identification systems.

Animal Health Minister Elliot Morley was pleased that industry representatives were working closely with Defra officials to develop common sense advice on the technical issues. "I am convinced that electronic identification of farmed animals is the way forward - especially in respect of sheep, where the foot-and-mouth outbreak drew attention to the need to monitor animal movements," he said.

Mr Morley accepted the need to sort out the technical issues first, to ensure compatibility and to take account of the developing European policy.

The steering group is chaired by Dr Ian Frood, NFU member, working with Defra and representatives from a wide range of farming and livestock organisations and the British Veterinary Association.

The group says electronic identification and tracing of cattle is further developed than for sheep, which require a central database and number allocation system. Its recommendations include Defra funding for EID/EDT and that Defra should establish a formal project to help its introduction. Defra should start the development of a database and number allocation and management system for sheep, and review current database arrangements to ensure plans for electronic sheep ID and movement recording are not compromised.