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Will livestock soon be joining the tattooing craze?

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Somark Innovations recently tested their tattooing identification system, and are making preparations to bring to market. Sheep, horses, and cows can all be tattooed with Somark's scannable ink--much the way a UPC barcode is scanned at a grocery store.

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Co-founders of Somark Innovations Ramos M. Mays, left, and Mark C. Pydynowski, right, recently tested their tattooing technology on cattle and laboratory rats. They plan on marketing the identification system to the livestock industry, and possibly even the military. (Courtesy of Mark C. Pydynowski)

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Somark Innovations recently tested their tattooing identification system, and are making preparations to bring to market. Sheep, horses, and cows can all be tattooed with Somark's scannable ink--much the way a UPC barcode is scanned at a grocery store.

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Somark Innovations recently tested their tattooing identification system, and are making preparations to bring to market. Sheep, horses, and cows can all be tattooed with Somark's scannable ink--much the way a UPC barcode is scanned at a grocery store.

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Somark Innovations recently tested their tattooing identification system, and are making preparations to bring to market. Sheep, horses, and cows can all be tattooed with Somark's scannable ink--much the way a UPC barcode is scanned at a grocery store.

Tattooists may soon welcome a different type of squirming subject. When the needle pricks the skin, instead of a shriek, there may be a deep moo from a 1,200-pound bovine. But for the cow, the tattoo won’t be a heart dedicated to mom--it’ll be an ID tag.

Somark Innovations, based in St. Louis, has been testing a biocompatible chip-less radio frequency identification ink for tattooing cattle and laboratory rats. If put into wider use, the tattoo could help farmers and stockyard workers identify sheep, horses and cows as they move from the farm into the food chain, and possibly help officials control any future outbreaks of bovine spongiform encephalopathy, or mad cow disease.

For Mark C. Pydynowski, 24, and Ramos M. Mays, 26, co-founders of Somark Innovations, the test is the latest leg in a journey that began when they were roommates together in college.

“It’s been a very wild and successful ride,” said Pydynowski, who met Mays when they were both on Washington University’s varsity baseball team.

Mays, inventor of the tattoo ink and chief science officer, said he first got the idea while growing up on his father’s cattle ranch in southwest Missouri. He noticed that the plastic ear tags that identified livestock often fell off, and that the $2 to $3 cost for each tag was making the process expensive.

“I started just thinking about ways to help that situation,” Mays said. “I knew that somebody was going to come up with something that worked, and it was going to do great things for the industry, and really help safety in food.”

In college, Mays brainstormed until he came up with the idea for an ink that resides in the skin’s dermis layer, the same area where a human tattoo is injected.

The look of the tattoo is being kept secret. Pydynowski, president of the company, says it is a pattern that can be scanned using either a handheld or stationary reader, much the way a UPC barcode is scanned at the grocery store.

In a recent test, Mays and Pydynowski injected cattle with the tattoo and successfully scanned the ink--even through the cow’s hair.

The tattoo, which is expected to cost farmers 99 cents an animal, gives livestock an identification number that is kept in a computer database, where farmers can store any information they wish, like birth date, history of the livestock’s movement and exposure to disease.

“It allows the industry to have a better understanding of where their animals have been, and what other animals they have come in contact with,” said Pydynowski, who wouldn’t speculate when the system would be ready for market. “What our technology will be able to do is really provide the industry with insurance that they can provide age- and source-verified meat to their customers, and therefore keep the trade doors open.”

Pydynowski believes tattoos would help during outbreaks of mad cow disease, giving health officials the information they need to quarantine suspect cows as quickly as possible. And with improved identification, Pydynowski believes foreign markets may find U.S. beef more attractive.

Tattooing may also help identify livestock as they make their way to slaughterhouses and stockyards.

Currently, the two entrepreneurs are finishing the technology’s development and setting up licensing agreements for other markets--such as the pet industry and even the military.

The tattoo could help soldiers “identify friend or foe, to help them with friendly fire and to help identify and rescue injured soldiers that are out there on the battlefield,” Pydynowski said.

Somark Innovations is part of the Center for Emerging Technologies, an economic center in St. Louis that fosters young technology development companies. In 2005, Pydynowski and Mays shared a $50,000 prize when their invention won Washington University’s Olin Cup competition.

So far, industry insiders are intrigued, though they have reservations.

Craig Minowa, environmental scientist with the Organic Consumers Association, a nonprofit public interest group, said tracking livestock was essential.

Identifying cattle is “obviously a system that is becoming more necessary as these production facilities become larger,” Minowa said. “It’s not like the old days where you could step outside and say, ‘Oh, that’s Bessie over there.’”

Minowa was interested in the possibility that the tattooing system could reduce the amount of cloned meat that is being passed off as organic, by allowing a processor to view its lineage. But he’s skeptical that identifying cattle is useful for small farms.

“If you’ve got two, five, 10 head of cattle outside, and you know full well where they came from, what their genetic pool is, there’s no need for implementing a system,” Minowa said.

But for large stockyards, Minowa said the technology could prove helpful.

“Assuming that it doesn’t affect the meat at all, or isn’t painful to the animal, then it seems like a good system,” Minowa said.

Greg Marrs, a director of the National Dairy Herd Improvement Association, said he was open to new technology, but that there should be a consistent identification system used by all farmers.

“Technology today allows us to track things much more effectively,” said Marrs, who is also a member of the Colorado Livestock Association, “but we need to all be doing something relatively similar.”

There’s also the question of imported beef, which, unless Somark Innovations were to go global, would continue to come from un-tattooed cows.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture has been developing the National Animal Identification System, an effort to register farms and identify cattle through voluntary record-keeping and tagging. So far, the department has registered 350,000 of what it calls farm premises, or roughly 25 percent of places in the United States where livestock are either housed or kept.

The department lists three ear tag companies on its Web site. But Ben Kaczmarski, a department spokesman, said the agency is open to new technology, including livestock tattoos.

If Somark Innovations “put forward a proposal for a cooperative agreement, and shows us that they have a product that will meet the needs of the National Animal Identification System, then we are technology neutral and we will look into any technological device,” Kaczmarski said.

E-mail: jvs2107@columbia.edu