Calf with RFID ear tag

A calf wears a circular radio frequency ID tag at a farm in Berks County, Pennsylvania.

USDA wants certain types of cattle to have ear tags that can be read both visually and electronically.

The agency proposed a rule Jan. 19 that would apply to all dairy cattle, show and rodeo stock, and sexually intact cattle and bison at least 18 months old.

The draft regulation is the latest step in a seven-year effort to speed up disease traceback by replacing metal ear tags with ones that can be read by an electronic scanner. Quickly determining which cattle a sick animal has been in contact with could be crucial to limiting the spread of a devastating disease.

The latest version of the rule would affect about 11% of cattle and bison, USDA said. The mandate would not apply to beef cattle and bison under 18 months old, animals going to slaughter, or animals that do not cross state lines.

The tagging rule would apply to all dairy cattle but only some beef cattle. That’s because dairy practices — such as pooling colostrum from multiple cows to feed many calves — have a higher the risk of disease transmission than beef husbandry does, USDA said.

USDA has used metal ear tags for animal identification in disease programs for decades and began accepting radio frequency identification tags for cattle in 2008.

Because they transmit their information to a scanner, electronic ear tags do not require the animal to be restrained while a person reads the tag number, and they reduce the risk of transcription errors, according to USDA. RFID tags also have identification numbers printed on them, so farmers won’t need to get electronic ear tag readers to manage their cattle.

Bill Bullard, CEO of R-CALF USA, said that by imposing ear tag costs on farmers, USDA was favoring the interests of large meatpackers.

The ear tag mandate could protect packers from a repeat of 2004, when cattle prices soared after many countries restricted U.S. beef imports in response to a case of mad cow disease.

“If the multinational packers believe RFID ear tags will help them avoid losses associated with trade restrictions, then those packers should offer economic incentives to the cattle industry to encourage more voluntary RFID participation,” Bullard said.

Bullard’s argument is based on an unusual set of circumstances.

A drastic drop in beef exports, like the 82% following the mad cow case, would be expected to lower domestic prices because of the increased supply.

But 2004 was a time of strong consumer demand for beef. Undeterred by the disease announcement, Americans increased their beef consumption and were willing to pay elevated prices.

“Although cattle prices remained relatively high during 2004, prices would have been significantly higher if beef export markets had continued to function normally,” Kansas State University researchers said in a 2005 paper.

Critics have also raised concerns about RFID tags falling out of animals’ ears. That can be an issue with short-term tags not used for USDA’s purposes, but the agency said its official tags have gone through a quality control review to ensure they stay put.

USDA estimates buying electronic ear tags instead of metal tags will increase cattle producers’ annual costs by $26 million nationally, or $30 per operation.

That’s far cheaper than even a small outbreak of foot and mouth disease, which USDA said could cause billions of dollars in disruption to the cattle industry. The disease was last found in the U.S. in 1929.

The National Cattlemen’s Beef Association said Jan. 18 that it was still reviewing the ear tag proposal.

In a change from previous drafts of the ear tag rule, this one refers to electronic identification tags rather than RFID tags. RFID is the only technology approved for electronic tags right now, but USDA wants to leave open possibilities for future tech.

USDA will accept comments on its proposal through March 20. It will then take time to review comments before finalizing the rule.

This story has been expanded since its initial posting.

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