The USDA is trying to hide the fact that its plan for electronic ID is likely to drive small farmers out of business, all for the benefit of Big Agribusiness.
By issuing its latest plan for mandatory electronic ID without going through the normal rulemaking process, USDA has avoided doing a cost-benefit analysis. But we have a real-world example of what happens with mandatory electronic ID. One state, Michigan, has required electronic ID for cattle since 2007.
FARFA filed a Freedom of Information Act request to find out how much Michigan’s program costs – not just cost to the state, but farmers, sale barns, veterinarians, all of whom are impacted by it. The Michigan ag department has responded that it will produce the documents, but only if FARFA pays over $1,700. Supposedly, the documents are so complicated and difficult to find that it would take high-level employees many hours to identify and copy them. (In other words, they mandated the program, but have no real idea of its cost.)
So let’s assess the costs by looking at the impact of the program. Every 5 years, the USDA does an agricultural census, and 2007 was a census year. So, what happened with Michigan cattle farms between 2007 and 2012, as compared with the rest of the country?
- Michigan saw a 3% decrease in the number of very small cattle operations (fewer than 10 head), even though nationally the number of such farms increased by 4%.
- Both Michigan and the entire country saw similar decreases in the number of small to mid-size farms.
- Michigan saw a 16% increase in the number of large cattle farms (500 to 999 cows), while nationally the number only increased 7%.
- Michigan saw a 35% increase in the number of very large cattle farms (over 1,000 head), even though the number of those operations decreased slightly nationally.
- Michigan saw a 50% increase in the number of cattle on those large farms, even though the number of cattle in large operations stayed basically steady nationally.
In other words, while both USDA and Michigan are hiding whatever internal analyses they have of the costs, it’s clear that the electronic ID program hurts small farms and helps big ones, just as we predicted. Now we need to stop the rest of the country from going down the same road as Michigan.
The ID tags themselves are only a few dollars each – but that’s 20 to 30 times as much as the current metal tags. With millions of cattle in this country, that adds up quickly! And then there’s the cost of the readers and other infrastructure needed to move to an electronic system. Plus there’s labor and logistics – large operations have expensive chutes and equipment that make handling their animals easier and quicker. It’s not as simple as bar code readers in a grocery store … think about how close you have to get the cereal box to the reader, and then think about trying to do that with 1,000 pound animals, some with sharp horns!
You still have until October 5 to tell USDA that you object to its plan to mandate electronic identification tags for cattle that cross state lines. And, remember, since many state animal ID programs are connected to the federal one, in practical terms, many farmers will be forced to use these Radio Frequency Identification Device (RFID) tags even for in-state movements.
Tell USDA that you oppose its proposal, and urge the agency to continue approving non-electronic forms of official identification for cattle.
Given USDA’s improperly close relationship with the meatpackers and technology companies, getting the agency to change its mind will be difficult. So also send your comments to your U.S. Representative and Senators and urge them to stop USDA from spending taxpayer dollars on this bad program.
Email: You can look up who represents you and send a message online at https://fiscalnote.com/find-your-legislator.
Additional talking points: Your comments to USDA can be very brief, even just 2 or 3 sentences. The important thing is to submit something so that there’s a record of the opposition to this terrible proposal!
- If you are a cattle producer, talk about the difficulties that electronic ID would pose for you – both the tags and the system as a whole (the readers, etc). Do you sell at a livestock auction that isn’t equipped to handle everything electronically? Or does your vet not have the equipment and a laptop to enter electronic data? Point out the impacts on you and the businesses that are vital for your farm/ranch.
- If you are a consumer, write a little about why this matters to you (you buy meat from local producers, you don’t want small farmers having to pay more for a program that benefits the large exporters, or whatever it is).
Thank you for taking action on this important issue!
Mandatory electronic Animal ID is expensive, intrusive, and unreliable. The plan benefits two groups: the large meatpacking corporations, and the technology companies that produce the electronic tags, readers, and software.
USDA and the meatpackers argue that traceability is about addressing animal disease and food safety. But it’s really about furthering corporate control of the meat industry by creating yet more regulations that promote international trade for the big meatpackers, are cheap for large-scale operations, and burden family farmers.
The vast majority of food-borne illnesses in meat are the result of practices at the slaughterhouse and afterwards in the processing and handling. We have seen millions of pounds of meat recalled due to unsanitary conditions and a lack of proper oversight at huge slaughterhouses. But the animal ID program ends at the slaughterhouse door – RFID tags on cattle won’t do anything to increase food safety.
Nor will RFID tags make our animals healthier. USDA continues to allow imports of livestock from countries with known disease problems. In fact, this electronic ID plan is primarily designed to maximize corporate profits by promoting exports and imports of animals and meat – further increasing the risk of introducing and spreading diseases.
If USDA wanted to address food safety and animal disease, it would increase oversight and testing at the large meat processing plants; and stop boxed meat and live cattle imports from countries with known disease problems. These two steps would do far more to promote a safe, secure food supply than sticking RFID tags in cows’ ears.
We already have Animal ID requirements that provide for low-tech forms of ID. Traditional metal ear tags cost about 10 cents each, and the USDA provides them to farmers for free. They work and they are cost-effective. In contrast, the agency estimates the cost to farmers for RFID tags will be $2-$2.60 per head. That doesn’t seem like much, but that translates to sales for the tag manufacturers of tens of millions of dollars each year. The people pushing electronic ID have not provided a scientific basis for replacing the existing ID programs with one that is significantly more expensive and intrusive.