by Gilles Stockton | July 1, 2019
Most cattle producers have probably not paid enough attention to Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue’s recent announcement that adult cattle in interstate commerce will be required to carry RFID tags. This includes all cattle vaccinated for brucellosis. It is going to cost you and is a step towards requiring that all cattle (including feeder calves) be nationally registered from birth to death.
This administration promised less regulation, but maybe that only means relaxed scrutiny of big corporations. When it comes to the little guy, and this ID regulation is certainly aimed at the little guy, the standards seem different.
We are told that RFID tags are needed for enhanced surveillance and response to disease outbreaks, but the Secretary does not explain how or why. The little – and free – metal tags have successfully been used to eradicate brucellosis and tuberculosis in most of America. If RFID tags are needed anywhere, they are needed in the bison and elk of Yellowstone Park. That is the source of brucellosis today and that is where our government’s failure to address the problem continues to put cattle herds at risk.
As for Tuberculosis, we would have that eradicated too, except we keep importing it from Mexico. Obviously, what is needed are more stringent protocols for cattle imported from Mexico or maybe no Mexican cattle at all. Less obviously, but needed, is medical oversight of Mexican farm workers as it has been shown that Mexican farm workers infected with the bovine form of tuberculosis have transmitted it back to cattle here in the United States. I have nothing against Mexican citizens working on ranches, feedlots, and dairies. They need the work and the cattle industry needs the help. What we could all benefit from is less politics and bluster, and instead, an enhanced system for guest workers.
We are told that the RFID tags are really needed for surveillance and response against Foot and Mouth Disease (FMD), but this argument does not hold water either. If/when FMD is introduced into America, the immediate response will be to ban any movement of cloven-hoofed animals. This will be followed by intense surveillance of all livestock. Where FMD is discovered, there will be a required vaccination of all livestock in a ring around the infected herd. Whether the cattle have or don’t have RFID tags beforehand will be totally irrelevant. However, to be fair, if we are to eliminate FMD after it has been introduced, some form of identification will be needed from that point on.
I think that all of us are willing and anxious to do what is needed to protect our cattle herd from introduced diseases. What Secretary Purdue does not do is inspire confidence that USDA is holding up their end of the bargain. The budget for the Veterinary Service is being cut just when we are importing more beef from countries of South America with endemic FMD. To top it off, USDA is in the process of moving their most highly contagious disease research to Kansas, right into tornado alley where they have the strongest and largest twisters in the world.
A competent veterinary disease surveillance and response program needs a lot more than ear tags in cattle. And the ear tags are the least important part. To respond to an outbreak of FMD the first step will be to have rapid diagnosis. This is not as easy as it might seem. There are over twenty different strains of FMD, and a correct diagnosis is needed in order to respond with the proper vaccine. Keeping all of the possible vaccines ready and on hand is also an expensive and complicated endeavor.
By far the best scenario for FMD is to not import it in the first place. It is highly infectious and has an incubation period of up to fourteen days. That means that once introduced it will have spread all over the country before anyone knows there is a problem. It will also infect deer and feral pigs which will serve as a reservoir for the disease. Although FMD is not necessarily fatal to livestock and is also not harmful to people, it will stop our beef exports. As we all know, the market for cattle and beef is controlled by the beef packing cartel, who will use FMD as an excuse to collapse cattle prices. By allowing the imports of beef from countries with endemic FMD, our government has chosen to play Russian Roulette with the muzzle pointed directly at the head of America’s livestock producers.
The Secretary also promises that these RFID tags will enhance beef exports, alleging that international customers want to know where their beef comes from. But they already know where it comes from because that’s what the branded beef programs are for. With the government requiring electronic tagging this will simply give the source verification information away for free, allowing the packing cartel to undercut all of the branding programs.
In making this announcement requiring RFID tags, Secretary Perdue makes no attempt to assure us that USDA’s many relevant departments, are ready, properly staffed, and funded to prevent and respond to an FMD outbreak. Isn’t this a cart before the horse scenario? Show us how RFID tags fit into a surveillance and response system that truly protects our cattle, cattlemen would then be happy to participate.
Grass Range, Montana