Why the livestock industry has no RFID meat

Despite the reluctance of some organizations to adopt mandatory marking in the United States, the technology may be beneficial to the cattle supply chain

Rich Handley

NoIn recent years, we have seen an effort to track cattle in the United States through radio frequency identification technology. Some are betting on the farm on the usefulness of RFID, while others see the promise of the technology as just a hat, but not cattle. Despite opposition in some quarters, it is undeniable that RFID can be immensely effective throughout the cattle supply chain. The time has come for the cattle industry to gain support for a government mandate.

This mandate has been produced for years. In 2015, the U.S. Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) embarked on a national pilot to test the UHF RFID utility in helping farms, feedlots, auctions and slaughterhouses track cattle. The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) provided tags to pilot participants to determine the effectiveness of RFID in identifying animals moving from one location to another, and APHIS moved forward last year with its plans to promote RFID identification of cattle in the United States.

rich handley
Rich Handley

Simultaneously with the agency’s pilots, Washington and other states began legislating rules and recommendations on the use of RFID in this industry. A cost-sharing program was announced, with the USDA offering help to finance a national transition to RFID, covering 50 cents per tag, and proposing cooperation agreements to help states finance the purchase of readers by veterinarians and livestock companies. The goal: to address the spread of disease by identifying livestock and tracking the history of each animal from birth to slaughter.

The United States seemed to follow a government-required RFID tracking program for cattle. In fact, it was announced that RFID tags (low or ultra-high frequency) would be required to track all animals by January 2021, and that ear tags would be mandatory for all beef or dairy cows moving interstate by 2023, with the choice of frequency varying according to the state in which a particular producer was located. The states began working with the USDA and several recommendations issued to ensure the transition proceeded smoothly. However, in the months leading up to the OVID-19 pandemic, the situation changed dramatically for all sectors.

After APHIS published a fact sheet to educate farmers about its guidelines and objectives related to the traceability of animal diseases, the USDA received many comments from the livestock industry – many of them disappointingly negative. To compound the problem, the Trump government’s executive orders placed a number of obstacles in the way of stopping the program’s progress. As a result, APHIS revised the guidelines and removed the RFID chip from its website. This did not prevent several states from continuing to promote RFID through local programs, but it did put efforts to approve a national system on hold. The tagging mandate bought the farm, at least temporarily.

RFID herd

Recently, the USDA published a new proposal in the Federal Register regarding its ongoing goal of requiring RFID tags for all animals moving across state lines, and cattle producers have until October 5 to submit comments on this proposal. This week, Bill Bullard of R-CALF USA – “a national non-profit organization dedicated to ensuring the continued profitability and viability of the U.S. livestock industry”, which is described on its website as representing “the collective voice of the U.S. cattle and sheep producers in matters of national and international trade and marketing” – spoke to Brownfield AG News about why he opposes this plan.

“Unfortunately,” Bullard told writer Larry Lee, “the agency is determined to gain control over the U.S. live cattle supply chain and the first step in doing so is to require all producers to start using RFID technology. Bullard said he opposes mandatory RFID tagging because of the expenses involved, explaining: “Currently, with the price reduction producers are facing [due to the ongoing pandemic], it is not time for the agency to demand additional production costs.

I sympathize with Bullard’s concerns about the cost of implementing an RFID system during a period of financial crisis. COVID-19 has affected every person and company on the planet and will continue to do so in the years to come, so it is only natural that companies will panic at the thought of having to spend additional money now. However, I also think that the flesh of him and others with the RFID proposal is short-sighted. Sometimes a large investment is needed to make long-term gains. A national RFID livestock identification program would benefit consumers, retailers and livestock owners, as well as protect the health and safety of the animals and humans who consume them, but it would also save money for everyone involved.

RFID allows farms and other members of the supply chain to easily identify livestock, track animal movements, monitor diseases and optimize processes. Marking animals can automate routine tasks, such as distributing food to different types of livestock, based on their specific needs. And an RFID database can store veterinary records and breeding history, allowing livestock producers to avoid the time-consuming manual processes involved in selling animals, while increasing accuracy and efficiency.

In addition, RFID can help farms and ranches avoid theft and poaching, as each animal is trackable by its RFID tag identification number – just as tagging pets can help families find those who can walk out and end up lost. An RFID solution can be configured to monitor suspicious activity, prevent animals from leaving safe places, and prevent them from approaching roads, ravines, electrical systems and other hazardous areas. When each head of cattle has its own unique ID, the task of identifying animals and collecting data can be accomplished at much higher speeds, allowing all members of the supply chain to quickly access information about a particular animal’s date of birth, its inoculations, its health history, and more.

The technology provides disease traceability, allows producers to meet inspection requirements electronically, expands the potential for international marketing opportunities – as many countries require the kind of digital livestock history RFID offers – and allows users to monitor what happens to animals as they are loaded onto trucks and moved throughout the supply chain. In short, RFID provides a digital record that increases the visibility of the health, condition and history of animals. It can protect the livestock industry from the rapid spread of disease, helping it meet the growing expectations of foreign and domestic buyers.

All this translates into financial gain. Those opposed to the enactment of a national cattle labelling mandate do so under the perception that the short-term costs involved in setting up an RFID system would be prohibitive. Meanwhile, back on the ranch, the long-term benefits are clear – and that is no bull. At a time when many companies are concerned about their continued prosperity, having a tool like RFID in their arsenal can help them survive the challenging times we face in the coming months and years. An optimized cattle supply chain benefits everyone, and it would be smart for those on the road to progress to step back, consider the bigger picture, and try not to assume the worst.

Or, to quote Bart Simpson… don’t have a cow, man.

Rich Handley has been the managing editor of the RFID Journal since 2005. Rich is the author, editor or contributor of several books on pop culture and is also the editor of the Star Trek Graphic Novel Collection of Eaglemoss.



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