Farmer and Rancher Coalition Opposes RFID-Tagging of Animals

The group's members believe tracking live animals will not solve the problem of food-borne illnesses.
Published: June 17, 2009

Last week, 55 groups from across the United States sent a letter to key Congressional committees asking them to halt funding for the National Animal Identification System (NAIS), and to keep it separate from food-safety reforms. The NAIS would require most farm animals to be tagged and registered with the federal government. Some legislators in Washington want to include the proposed NAIS as a mandatory component of food-safety reforms, which gained urgency following several major incidents of food-borne illness this year in the United States.

Many farmers and ranchers oppose the NAIS because they feel it would impose significant regulatory compliance costs on small livestock producers, and not help combat food-borne illness or animal disease. They also believe it infringes on the privacy rights of farmers who are not raising livestock for integrated meatpackers and processors.

Judith McGeary, executive director of the Farm and Ranch Freedom Alliance, and one of the letter’s signatories, was quoted in a press release as saying: “The giant meatpackers are diverting attention from the real reasons for the recurring food scandals, by pushing a feel-good tracking program that will protect their profits without improving the safety of their meat products.” The real problems in the U.S. food supply, the coalition feels, stem not from anything that occurs on a farm or ranch, but rather from contamination in large slaughterhouses.

I agree with the coalition in this respect: It’s a mistake to conflate problems in a slaughterhouse with those on a ranch. But I think it may be the coalition that’s doing the conflating, and that the group may be acting against farmers’ best interests. It seems to me that the coalition is using the bigger problem at the slaughterhouses to avoid complying with the NAIS.

No one claims tracking will eliminate e-coli contamination at the slaughterhouse. RFID tracking was mainly proposed to control an outbreak of mad cow and other diseases affecting live animals. The goal was to quickly identify and isolate any cows that might have such a disease.

I understand that small farmers and ranchers don’t have buckets of money to spend on new technology, but I do find it strange that these businesses would not want to protect themselves from a possible outbreak. Consider what happened in Europe, when billions of dollars were lost because no one could identify the diseased cattle.

To me, an RFID tracking system is like insurance. It’s going to cut into your profit when you first buy the equipment, but it could save your business—not to mention protect public health. What’s more, I think there could be business benefits. I know that in Britain, some high-end stores are selling organically raised beef that’s been tracked from birth with RFID. People pay extra for the meat because they know it’s safe.

I’m told the major problem the farmers face with RFID is that they think the big slaughterhouses will gain access to more information about available cattle, then use it to squeeze the farmers. The government needs to make sure the NAIS can’t be abused in this manner, and could greatly help the process by providing tax breaks to small businesses. I’d also like to see retailers work with meat producers to use RFID to prove beef originated in the United States.

In addition, it’s wrong to focus solely on tracking animals. As the coalition rightly points out, more problems originate at slaughterhouses than on farms. It’s important, in the event of a problem, to be able to track not only animals, but also which slaughterhouse meat came from, the batch of meat involved and where it was shipped. Singling out farmers alone won’t solve much.