Guest Opinion: Send the USDA your feedback on Radio Frequency Identification
Radio Frequency Identification tagging is a topic a lot of farmers and ranchers have been talking about the past couple of years. Radio Frequency Identification tagging will impact all cattle producers regardless of what aspect of the industry you are in, including rodeo stock.
USDA-APHIS is accepting farmer feedback about Radio Frequency Identification tags until Oct. 6. If you want to reference it in the Federal Register, it is Volume 85 Number 129 and dated Monday, July 6, 2020. In this notice the USDA gives the scope of what they will attempt to cover with the RFID rules.
The goals USDA wants to achieve include:
Encouraging the use of electronic identification for animals that move interstate under the current Animal Disease Traceability regulation.
Enhancing electronic sharing of basic animal disease traceability data.
Enhancing the ability to track animals from birth to slaughter.
Increasing the use of electronic health certificates.
I agree there is a need for animal traceability when there is a disease outbreak. We have had BSE or mad cow disease cattle in the U.S. in the past, and the ability to trace where those animals had been was important. However, I and many other cattlemen have many questions.
I spoke with the Montana state veterinarian and the head epidemiologist with APHIS. All the major cattle diseases would be covered under this system, even diseases that are polar opposites. BSE requires a complete history of the animal, which takes time — while foot and mouth disease requires a rapid trace of recent movements. If USDA wants to upgrade the technology to help with food security, then as a nation we should move forward.
My first question is, who has access to the data? I was told by both vets that the data was held by state officials until animals are moved across state lines. Then, that data would be merged into a collated system with states and USDA. USDA would have limited data points about the disease event, such as where, when and what the disease is. USDA would not initially have the producer information. That would have to come from the state veterinarians when requested by USDA if necessary after a diseased animal is discovered.
Another question I have is why are all dairy cattle required to be traced? The answer was three-fold. One, dairy cattle have a higher risk of tuberculosis or TB. There have been cases in mega-dairy farms where workers gave TB to herds. This has occurred at mega dairy farms in California and Texas. It is another example why family farms are safer and more reliable for the U.S. food system. Two, raised dairy heifers move in a less systematic way through the food system than beef heifers. Three, dairy steers tend to be moved multiple times during their lifespan, thus being comingled with many herds.
Currently, APHIS contacts all state veterinarian offices and performs a test on how quickly they can trace animals using the current metal ear tags. Each state has a different number of tests, depending on the size of the state’s cattle herd. The speed of the traceability test has been adequate for all state veterinarian offices using the current metal tags. So, we do have a system in place which works for traceability.
The point that the APHIS official brought up to me, is this expanded system would have greater reach because more animals would be tagged. The main reason given for the transition from metal to Radio Frequency Identification tags, is the accuracy in reading those tags. A reader wand is waved over the Radio Frequency Identification and the data is automatically fed into the computer system, therefore there is no chance of misreading numbers. However, there is no standardization in the tag technology. Both low and ultra-high frequency tags, and each must be read by a different type of wand. USDA has already supplied over two million of the low frequency type of tags to producers.
As cattle move from one farm to another — as is the case with dairy steers — the new facility may want to consider changing to an ultra-high frequency tag. At that point, it becomes the responsibility of the new owner to update the tracking system. And, this is the point at which errors can happen. If we want truly accurate traceability, then there should be tag standardization. If the new facility wants a different type of tag, the original low frequency tag should be left in the animal, thus reducing human error.
My final question is, who should pay for this system? USDA has already set a precedent by supplying metal tags for years. And they also have supplied over two million Radio Frequency Identification tags to producers already. The benefit is not just to the cattle industry, but also to the safety of consumer food.
If society deems traceability to be important for food security, then we should all pay for the program. Therefore, USDA should supply producers with the tools necessary to collect and control the data, which means tags, wands, computer software programs at no cost to producers. It goes without saying USDA must also ensure our data is securely controlled.
Please send your input to USDA by Oct. 6, and let your opinions be known.
Bruce Shultz is vice president of the National Farmers Organization. He and his wife Wendy operate a cow/calf ranch in Raynesford, Montana.