Mr. Leathers – We don’t need to be told what to do with animal identification

November 13, 2019

By Gilles Stockton

I am sure that most cattle producers would embrace enhanced disease traceability if indeed it was shown that this is necessary. But that is the point. The need for electronic identification for cattle in interstate commerce has never been made. Instead, like in a recent presentation by Joe Leathers at a Feeding Quality Forum put on by Certified Angus Beef (CAB) the alleged need for RFID tagging for disease surveillance is confounded with identification for marketing purposes.

According to an article published by Western Ag Reporter (Nov. 7, 2019) Mr. Leathers is reported to have said: “There is going to be a disease traceability program in our future in the United States. So, get over it.” He is apparently exasperated that some of us in the cattle industry question the necessity for USDA to mandate the use of RFID tags. But then, Mr. Leathers immediately confuses disease traceability with marketing, saying that “More and more consumers simply want to know more about their food.”

It seems to me that consumers do want to know more about their food, and the place to start is to put Country of Origin Labels on packages of meat. For those consumers who want to know exactly where their meat comes from, I would strongly advise them to go to the Farmers Market. For mass and export markets we already have a voluntary system through branded beef programs such as CAB.  If there is consumer demand for “ranch of origin” information, the producer should be paid.  We do not need the government to give it away free.

As for disease traceability, we already have a USDA mandated system that has been proven effective.  The little metal tags, the back tags, and brands have worked to almost eliminate brucellosis and tuberculosis. That those disease are still with us has little to do with the efficiency of those forms of animal identification.  We still have a brucellosis threat because our government will not address the fact that this disease is endemic among Yellowstone Park’s bison and elk. Tuberculosis is still a threat because we continue to import cattle from Mexico.  Big ranchers and feedlots from Texas to California import Mexican cattle and if Joe Leathers is one of those, then he has no business lecturing the rest of us.

The big disease threat we face is the introduction of Foot and Mouth Disease (FMD).  And the keyword is “introduction.” We have part of our government supporting the importation of meat from countries with active FMD epidemics. Meanwhile, we have another much smaller part of the government – the Veterinary Services – tasked to protect us after FMD has been introduced. The plain fact is that the Veterinary Services do not have the resources to effectively do their jobs. Since they do not have the needed funds, the vets are looking at how their work might be made easier if all cattle producers are required to pay for and attach RFID tags.

A real danger we face is that this country does not have an adequate FMD vaccine bank. Of what possible good would it be to have a fancy computerized database of all cattle in interstate commerce when there is no ability to respond to an FMD outbreak.  Aren’t we putting the cart before the horse?

R-Calf’s suit against USDA has resulted in USDA backing down and rescinding the order requiring RFID tags. But that suit was based on the fact that USDA did not follow Rule Making administrative procedures. So, all we have won is a delay.  Next time, USDA will undoubtedly follow proper administrative regulations and will propose a Rule that restores a mandatory requirement for RFID tags.

However, the actual argument for why this may or may not be needed will still not have been made. Cattle producers want to do what is right because disease surveillance and response is important.  USDA needs to clearly make their case and then the rest of us will look at their arguments and decide what will be the correct way to proceed.  We don’t need to be told what to do.