Big Brother meets Animal Farm

Stephen DeAngelis

July 27, 2009

Perhaps nothing is more important to humankind that ensuring that its food and water supplies are safe and secure. The occasional flare-ups of “mad cow disease” that have caused panic and have halted of cross-border sales of meat have resulted in efforts to tag animals so that they can be traced through the food chain. These efforts have caused concern both in the United States and in Europe. Ranchers in America’s west have always been known for their individualism and it is no surprise that they are resisting any attempts by the government to look over their shoulders [“Rebellion on the Range Over a Cattle ID Plan,” by Erik Eckholm, New York Times, 27 June 2009]. Eckholm writes:

“Wranglers at the Platt ranch were marking calves the old-fashioned way last week, roping them from horseback and burning a brand onto their haunches. What they were emphatically not doing, said Jay Platt, the third-generation proprietor of the ranch, was abiding by a federally recommended livestock identification plan, intended to speed the tracing of animal diseases, that has caused an uproar among ranchers. They were not attaching the recommended tags with microchips that would allow the computerized recording of livestock movements from birth to the slaughterhouse. ‘This plan is expensive, it’s intrusive, and there’s no need for it,’ Mr. Platt said.”

Expenses are always a concern for those involved in agricultural. The vagaries of the commodity market are well known and keeping costs down is essential for ranchers, farmers, and consumers. The cost per animal for the electronic tags is about $2/head. I suspect, however, that it is intrusiveness as much as cost that is putting a bur under the saddles of ranchers. The government believed the plan was fairly straight forward and would be welcomed because it could reduce unnecessary testing on some animals.

“The plan, which is still being ironed out, might have seemed simple enough. With the ever-present threat of animal epidemics, why not modernize the system for identifying livestock? Why not keep computer records of movements so that when a cow is discovered with bovine tuberculosis or mad cow disease, its prior contacts can be swiftly traced? The disease source and the herds needing to be quarantined can be determined faster, officials said. ‘Now, when there’s an outbreak, we can’t trace prior movements quickly, and we end up testing a lot more animals than necessary,’ said Neil Hammerschmidt, director of the identification program for the federal Agriculture Department. ‘We want to put in place the infrastructure prior an outbreak.'”

The fact that the program originates from a Democratic administration doesn’t sit well in Republican country.

“Mr. Platt expresses his opposition in more measured terms than many. Web sites analyze every official statement with suspicion, and angry farmers have packed the ‘listening sessions’ held around the country this spring by the Obama administration’s new agriculture secretary. Rumors have swirled, and farmers are asking whether the government will really require tags on every baby chick and catfish fingerling or a computer report when a pet pony trots onto a neighbor’s land. Underlying the opposition is the fragile economics of ranches and small farms, which are already disappearing. The extra cost of radio tags, scanners and filing reports when animals change premises would be crushing, some smaller producers say.”

To be fair, good arguments can be mounted by both sides; but the potential costs for so-called “family farmers” could well drive them out of business. The problem is not the cost of RFID tags, but the personnel costs to install the devices and then take care of all the data entry requirements. Most people, I believe, would like to save a place in the future for family farmers. Some small farmers, Eckholm reports, believe that the tagging program was designed by large agri-corporations to drive small farms and ranches out of business. Conspiracy theorists believe that animals are only the first step. Some ranchers’ trucks sport bumper stickers that read “Tracking cattle now, tracking you soon.” The government insists that many of the concerns are exaggerated, but the program is likely to run into continued opposition.

Politicians in Europe are facing similar challenges; especially in the United Kingdom [“Shepherd’s warning,” The Economist, 4 July 2009 print issue].

“The British government found out in the 2001 outbreak of foot and mouth disease (FMD) among cattle, tracing the origins of an epidemic can be tough. To make disease control easier, the European Union decided that all sheep, which also get FMD, should have identity cards in the form of electronic ear tags. That way they can be monitored, just as supermarkets use radio-frequency identification microchips in packaging to track their stock. Tracing infected animals back to their home farms is crucial for disease control. It seems a good idea. It should also make controlling scrapie, a nasty sheep disease that can remain undetected for years before symptoms show, much easier.”

Interestingly enough, the article points out that the EU used the U.S. as an example of how effective monitoring can be.

“America started using the same technology in 2001 and stepped up an animal-testing programme to wipe out scrapie. The disease turned out to be more widespread than was first thought but, since 2005, the number of flocks testing positive has fallen by about 77%.”

Effective or not, “British farmers, with 33m sheep or 24% of the EU’s total flock, don’t want to be herded down that route.” The arguments used by British shepherds are the same ones used by U.S. cattle ranchers. The costs of the tags, readers, and data entry are simply too onerous. “Such is the uproar that the EU’s sheep-taggers have agreed to postpone making the scheme compulsory until the beginning of 2010.” In an “I told you so” moment” for the conspiracy theorists, the article reports that “given how hard it is proving to mandate ID tags for sheep, it is perhaps unsurprising that the [British] government is rethinking ID cards for people.”

There will always be a tension between food safety and food costs. Inspecting agricultural products and the plants that process them is not cheap; but the public rightfully expects its food supply to be safe. Information age technologies permit us to tag and track items and provide information that could be potentially beneficial in times of crisis. The question is whether the risk of not doing so is greater than the expense of implementing a tracking system. It’s not just the farmers and ranchers that have a stake in the cost-benefit analysis. The eventual consumer should also have a say. Unfortunately, too often the consumer insists on safety but whines about the rising cost of food. Even reluctant family farmers have eventually learned that new technologies can help them improve efficiency and lower costs. It will probably take decades to understand whether electronic tagging is one of them.