USDA takes another run at mandating electronic ear tags, pointing to increasing livestock and food security risks

Northern Ag NetworkJanuary 20, 2023Agriculture News

WASHINGTON, D.C. – The United States Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) is proposing to amend animal disease traceability regulations and require electronic identification for interstate movement of certain cattle and bison. APHIS is also proposing to revise and clarify record requirements.

Official USDA tags will now be defined as those that are both visually and electronically readable. USDA will remain technology neutral at this time – meaning, they will not standardize which frequency tag you must use.

The proposal would only apply to certain classes of cattle that are crossing state lines and meet any of the following conditions:

  • sexually intact and 18 months of age or older;
  • all female dairy cattle of any age and male dairy animals born after March 11, 2013;
  • cattle and bison of any age used for rodeo or recreational events; and
  • cattle or bison of any age used for shows or exhibitions.

Electronic identification tags for livestock movements have been a source of debate and controversy for more than two decades. Arguments about their value and use in tracing animal diseases were highlighted in 2003 after the first case of bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) was first discovered in the United States. The cattle industry has been slowly moving towards greater traceability rules and technology ever since.

The proposed rule comes while the Ranchers-Cattlemen’s Action Legal Fund United Stockgrowers of America (R-CALF USA) has a case pending before the U.S. Supreme Court over a proposed 2019 USDA rule involving radio-frequency identification (RFID) ear tags. The Supreme Court has asked the Biden administration to respond to R-CALF’s petition, said Bill Bullard, CEO of the group. The federal government’s response could lead the High Court to take up the case or reject R-CALF’s appeal.

National Cattlemen’s Beef Association (NCBA) President-Elect Todd Wilkinson, a South Dakota cattle producer and chairman of the NCBA traceability working group, commented that, “As USDA has worked toward a nationally significant animal disease traceability program, NCBA has remained engaged in the conversation with industry stakeholders and USDA to ensure the interests of cattle producers are represented and protected. It is critical that any program ultimately adopted by USDA allows for maximum flexibility and privacy. At the same time, USDA must also minimize the costs for producers and any business disruptions to the industry.

“Foot-and-mouth disease outbreaks across the globe continue to result in disruptions to commerce and depopulated livestock, the need for bold action is immediate and evident. However, NCBA is committed to working with USDA to ensure workable solutions are identified and ultimately implemented. Cattle producers can be confident that any finished product will protect our national livestock herd. We will ensure it provides maximum producer privacy and flexibility with minimal costs, exactly what our stakeholders have told us they expect from USDA.”

In a notice to members about the proposed rule, the U.S. Cattlemen’s Association noted that “About 89 percent of the national herd of approximately 100 million cattle and bison WILL NOT be impacted by the changes in this proposal.”

“U.S. Cattlemen’s Association members understand the importance of building an animal disease traceability system that doesn’t burden producers, is effective for disease tracebacks, and maintains the confidentiality of individuals. USCA will continue to engage with senior animal health officials to establish a workable program to treat, monitor, and ultimately contain an endemic disease as quickly and efficiently as possible.”

In its proposal, APHIS highlighted the need to improve the ability to trace animals back from slaughter and forward from the animals’ home farm or ranch, as well as tracing additional movements of the livestock.

Tracing the location and movement of animals doesn’t prevent animal disease outbreaks, but does allow state, federal and tribal veterinarians to limit potentially disease outbreaks and limit the damage they can cause to the U.S. cattle and bison industries, APHIS stated. “A comprehensive animal disease traceability system is the best protection against a devastating disease outbreak,” APHIS stated in the proposed rule.

Highlighting the risks that foot-and-mouth disease would cause, APHIS noted “time is critical” when it comes to tracing animal movements. Foot-and-mouth disease (FMD) can transmit from animal to animal in as little as 34 to 48 hours. While not found in the U.S., APHIS stated “even a small outbreak of FMD would have multi-billion-dollar impacts on U.S. livestock producers’ access to export markets with additional losses to production, reproduction and animal population.”

Other diseases such as bovine tuberculosis move slowly but can infect multiple herds before the disease is detected.

APHIS stated EID ear tags “offer a number of advantages over non-EID ear tags.” Simple visual ear tags can be harder to read, and the numbers on the tags could be only recorded on paper, or manually entered into a database. For EID ear tags, they can be read as livestock pass by an electronic reader. Once the ear tag is scanned, then the tag number can be quickly transmitted to a database.

This reduces the risk of error and makes it significantly quicker for veterinarians to access the information, APHIS noted.

“Disease investigations that involve tracing an animal with electronic records take only minutes to hours, while searching paper records for a visual ear tag number can take days to weeks or longer,” APHIS stated. “Shorter disease investigations minimize the impact on individual producers, herds, businesses, and communities.”

In moving cattle and bison across state lines, USDA records show about 11 million cattle per year from 2017-21 had only visual identification tags that were not electronic, which equates to about 11% of the national herds for cattle and bison.

A cost-benefit analysis from USDA estimated it would cost about $26.1 million per year to purchase roughly 11 million EID ear tags for those producers who currently do not use EID ear tags on their cattle or bison.

Under the proposal, EID ear tags would be required six months after a final rule is published in the Federal Register. APHIS is also proposing new rules for record retention and access requirement for record pertaining to slaughter cattle.

The proposed rule will have a 60-day comment period that should run until March 22.