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A Small Farmer's Perspective on the USDA's RFID Ear Tag Mandate

posted on

May 14, 2024

Hey guys, Remi here. 👨‍🌾

Today I want to share my perspective on the USDA's recent mandate for RFID Ear Tags to be used on cattle and bison moved across state lines.

First let me state that I am not entirely against RFID Ear Tags, but they should not be mandated by the government. In this post I will share some of the advantages of RFID technology, as well as the struggles this new requirement presents for ranchers and consumers alike.

At the end, I will share what you can do to help us overturn this decision before it takes effect in fall of 2024. But first let's talk about:

  1. What are RFID Ear Tags?
  2. What are the advantages of RFID Ear Tags?
  3. What are the disadvantages of RFID Ear Tags?
  4. What is the USDA's upcoming mandate for RFID Ear Tags?
  5. What effect does the USDA Ear Tag mandate have on small farmers?
  6. What can I do to stop the USDA from mandating use of RFID Ear Tags?

What are RFID Ear Tags?

Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) Ear Tags are a modern type of identification tag attached to the ear of an animal, typically livestock such as cattle, sheep, pigs, or bison. RFID refers to the technology used to transmit and receive data from the tags via radio waves.

RFID Ear Tags contain a small electronic chip or transponder that contains a unique animal identification number or code. The tag can be scanned with an RFID reader to identify an animal by it's unique ID. RFID Ear Tags can also be used to track other information about an animal, such as it's date of birth, weight and vaccine records, and owner history. 

What are the advantages of RFID Ear Tags?

The most common type of animal identification used by ranchers today is plastic or silicone ear tags that have a visible identification number printed or written on it. They have been used for decades and are already required for most livestock being moved across state lines. An animal's ear tag may be color-coded for quick group identification, and the ID number can be read from several yards away in good conditions. 

The advantages of RFID Ear Tags are:

  • Accuracy: RFID technology enables accurate and automated identification of individual animals, reducing the risk of errors associated with manual record-keeping.
  • Efficiency: RFID ear tags allow for rapid and non-invasive identification of animals, saving time and labor during tasks such as herd management, health monitoring, and sales transactions.
  • Traceability: The unique identification code stored in the RFID chip enables traceability throughout the animal's lifecycle, from birth to slaughter.
  • Data Management: RFID ear tags facilitate the collection, storage, and transmission of data regarding individual animals' movements, health status, and ownership history. This data can be used for record-keeping, decision-making, and regulatory compliance.
  • Integration: RFID technology can be integrated with other management systems, such as electronic health records or supply chain management platforms for those who need it.

What are the disadvantages of RFID Ear Tags?

While RFID Ear Tags offer several advantages for researchers, large-scale meatpackers, and exporters, they are not a great fit for everyone. Here are the biggest disadvantages of RFID Ear Tags:

  • Cost: One of the primary disadvantages of RFID ear tags is their initial cost. RFID technology typically requires a higher upfront investment compared to traditional identification methods such as visual ear tags or branding. The cost of RFID tags, readers, software, and infrastructure can be significant, particularly for small-scale or budget-constrained operations like ours.
  • Infrastructure Requirements: Implementing RFID technology requires the establishment of infrastructure to support tag reading and data management. This includes RFID readers, antennas, and connectivity solutions such as Wi-Fi or cellular networks. In remote or rural areas with limited infrastructure, establishing and maintaining RFID systems can be challenging and costly.
  • Tag Loss and Damage: RFID ear tags, like any physical tag, are susceptible to loss or damage due to environmental factors, animal behavior, or handling practices. Tags may become detached or damaged, leading to inaccuracies in identification and data loss.
  • Compatibility and Standardization: The adoption of RFID technology in the livestock industry has led to a proliferation of tag formats, frequencies, and protocols. The current lack of compatibility and standardization among RFID systems can pose challenges for interoperability, data exchange, and regulatory compliance. Ranchers may encounter difficulties in selecting compatible RFID solutions and integrating them into their existing workflows.
  • Privacy and Security Concerns: RFID technology raises concerns about data privacy and security, particularly regarding the collection, storage, and transmission of sensitive information about individual animals. Ranchers are apprehensive—and rightfully so—about ceding control over their data to external entities and ensuring compliance with data protection regulations.

What is the USDA's upcoming mandate for RFID Ear Tags?

Here is an excerpt from the Farm-To-Consumer Legal Defense Fund, an active organization dedicated to protecting food freedom in the US:

"In January 2023, APHIS proposed a rule that would require Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) or electronic animal ID tags on certain cattle and bison moving in interstate commerce (across state lines) in addition to visual identification. In late April 2024, USDA finalized the rule that would make RFID tags mandatory for cattle and bison being transported across state lines."

This puts undue burden on small farmers and ranchers, giving Big Ag yet another advantage in the livestock industry. It will require that all cattle and bison being moved across state lines have an RFID or electronic ear tag.

The USDA claims that this mandate is being put forth as a disease prevention and traceability measure. There is no data in over a decade showing that food borne illnesses have resulted from disease on small farms; all major disease outbreaks in recent years have occurred on large farms. I don't believe that RFID Ear Tags should be mandated regardless, but at the least USDA should give small farms an exception since they have proven to be one of the safest links in the food chain.

The new rule also provides for large-scale cattle operations to use one ID per group of a certain size, instead of one ID per animal. This means that the smaller farms will actually incur more cost per animal once the mandate takes effect, than the big players will. This intentional loophole also reduces the traceability for large farms and exporters, contradicting the USDA's primary reason for mandating RFID Ear Tags in the first place.

What effect does the USDA Ear Tag mandate have on small farmers?

The USDA's upcoming mandate for RFID Ear Tags is favorable for large-scale cattle operations and the export market—not small-to-mid-scale farms. While RFID Ear Tags are being used on farms of every size today, they are not an economical or justifiable option for many. 

For some small-scale cattle producers like us who rarely move cattle across state lines, this mandate will have no immediate effect. But for anyone transporting cattle across state lines, or purchasing cattle from a neighboring state, this mandate will add unnecessary burden.

As of right now, RFID or electronic ear tags cost at least 2x as much as visually identifiable ear tags, and the readers required for the ear tags would require an added investment. Collecting and recording the data will also require farms to purchase new software. With the cost of cattle currently resting at an extreme high, this would cut into the already thin profits of farmers like us, and require an increase in costs to our consumers.

This mandate also gives the USDA one more "foot on the farm", which is rarely in the best interest of the farmers.

Historically, farms selling directly to consumers have been the safest in terms of potential foodborne illness and animal diseases. Traceability is simple when you know the person who you produced your food. 

If the USDA truly wants to prevent disease, their focus should be directed towards humane and regenerative agricultural practices. As long as we have giant feedlot operations, imported cattle, and meatpackers combining beef from tens of thousands of different animals, traceability will be a necessary issue. But I don't agree that small farms and their consumers should have to pay the price for it. 

Alexia Kulwiec, Executive Director of FTCLDF sums it up perfectly:

"The mandatory USDA rule benefits large meatpackers by allowing them to structure their operations to avoid the requirement through group identification, while the rule adds significant cost, burden, and risk for America’s independent ranchers and farmers. There is no evidence that RFID tags are needed for disease traceability. Rather than support a resilient food system, the rule disproportionately harms small and mid-sized producers."

What can I do to stop the USDA from mandating use of RFID Ear Tags?

From the Farm-To-Consumer Legal Defense Fund, on May 13, 2024:

"In an important move for independent ranchers, today U.S. Senator Mike Rounds (R-S.D.) introduced legislation (S. 4282) aimed at preventing the USDA Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) from implementing mandatory electronic identification on livestock that moves in interstate commerce. Farm-to-Consumer Legal Defense Fund (FTCLDF) has followed this issue and has been supporting efforts to get the USDA rule changed."

Please click here for the most recent FTCLDF Action Alert to request for U.S. Senators in your state to sign onto Sen. Rounds’ Bill. I greatly appreciate your support of your local farmers and ranchers on this issue! I believe that we all deserve food freedom.

David's Pasture will not be immediately affected by this mandate, but many of our fellow farmers will. Please join us in ensuring they can stay in business and continue feeding families with the nutritious foods they need.

Your farmer,
Remi Kesten



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