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USDA hits ‘pause’ on cattle tracking proposal

Ear tags have been used for decades by farmers to identify their stock. Brands and tattoos also are used.

Nine months after proposing a phase-out of metal and plastic identification ear tags, the USDA decided they can be used indefinitely on cattle that cross state borders, on cattle exhibited at fairs, and on dairy cattle. The Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service wanted to make radio frequency identification tags (RFIDs) the only approved tag, on grounds they would be more useful in case of an outbreak of dangerous diseases.

The USDA said on Tuesday it would not finalize its July 2020 phase-out proposal and “all current APHIS-approved methods of identification may be used… until further notice.” The USDA said it would consider further rulemaking on the topic.

“APHIS continues to believe that RFID tags will provide the cattle industry with the best protection against the rapid spread of animal diseases and will therefore continue to encourage the use of RFID tags while rulemaking is pending,” said the USDA.

The government and livestock producers have squabbled over so-called animal traceback rules since the discovery of a dairy cow with mad cow disease in December 2003. Producers say they would be saddled with additional costs for the bookkeeping involved. Some fear potential liability if they are blamed for diseased animals. In the past, the USDA had a goal of being able to locate the home farm and herdmates of sick animals within 48 hours of a disease outbreak.

“The ability to accurately and rapidly trace animals does not prevent disease epidemics but does allow State and Federal veterinarians to contain potentially devastating disease outbreaks early before they can do substantial damage to the U.S. cattle industry,” said the USDA in its 2020 proposal.

Most cattle would not be affected by the debate over ear tags; they are sold for slaughter at a relatively young age or are kept on the farm or ranch for breeding. The USDA mandate for ear tags was aimed at “sexually intact beef animals over 18 months of age moving in interstate commerce; cattle used for exhibition, rodeo, and recreational events; and all dairy cattle.”

Ear tags have been used for decades by farmers to identify their stock. Brands and tattoos also are used.

Produced with FERN, non-profit reporting on food, agriculture, and environmental health.
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