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R-CALF sues USDA over RFID mandate

R-CALF takes to the courts once again in an effort to thwart beef industry innovation.

Objectively speaking, it is a debatable question as to whether R-CALF prefers lawsuits just because, or because it is the only avenue open to them when it cannot summon the numbers of cattlemen and voters needed to accomplish its goals.

Either way, R-CALF has conjured up another organization with a legal department to file another suit to join the ones already filed against the Beef Checkoff through Public Justice and through a Chicago-New York law firm against the packers.

This one is against USDA’s proposal to mandate RDID ear tags for animal disease traceability, based on the limited animal traceability plan state veterinarians and concerned livestock producers have developed. The antiquated metal ear tag and paper–and-cardboard box system the U.S. relies on now to safeguard animal and public health is outdated by decades. 

Some state veterinarians’ offices are so overrun with paper records and big animal populations that it can take weeks to trace the origin and ownership transfer trail of a diseased animal. We’ve seen photos of rows of boxes down the halls of some offices.

It is true that the U.S. would have had an overall animal traceability system in place, well tested and revised by now, except for the opposition of R-CALF and similar groups over a decade ago.

While the Organization for Competitive Markets (OCM) has morphed into an arm of HSUS and R-CALF rubs shoulders with PETA at the Public Justice legal trough, R-CALF has now recruited another organization, the New Civil Liberties Alliance (NCLA). 

The NCLA is suing USDA, along the same track as R-CALF’s old opposition to animal traceability, to oppose the requirement of the application of an RFID tag instead of the old metal ear tags or a short list of other permanent methods.

We don’t know if R-CALF has the same privacy arguments in mind as before. But in media statements, they are citing the cost against requiring RFID tags to prevent the spread of diseases among farmers’ and ranchers’ livestock. Everything is fine now, according to R-CALF.

This lawsuit is being contested on procedural grounds. It claims the USDA does not have the authority to require the use of RFID tags and that it did not follow procedures for proposed rules and comment periods.

A look back

We have not been able to find out just when in the last century USDA began requiring metal ear tags. I personally remember the feds coming to our farm to test every critter for TB sometime in the 1960s as part of a nationwide sweep. I believe they were using metal ear tags to identify animals then. 

One can’t find anything on USDA’s website these days, as they are transitioning to some “new and improved” website system that cannot handle any of the past links.

But it is pretty certain metal ear tags have been the accepted, official identification at least since the 1950s, when USDA began a national brucellosis eradication program. USDA evidently had the authority then. Beyond that, surely our technology has improved over the last 70 years or so.

So, while the attorneys can argue procedures, the fact is the threat of diseases that could wipe out our domestic herd and destroy both domestic and export markets in a short period of time is still the fundamental fact at issue here. Foot-and-mouth disease (FMD) is one example usually discussed. It is very contagious, spreads through multiple channels and kills or incapacitates animals in a short period of time. 

In fact, R-CALF has been one of the groups opposing importation of beef from Brazil because of the threat of FMD. That position doesn’t logically compute with its opposition to something that would drastically speed up tracing and eradicating that same disease.

Additionally, the rise of African swine fever and avian flu a few years ago have demonstrated dramatically how old or new diseases can appear or become more virulent and threaten the very existence of a country’s livestock industry.

Livestock groups and state veterinaries have spent many years working on improving our system of surveillance, prevention, response and eradication of diseases to get a system handled by federal and state agencies to protect the livestock industry and its producers. Using legal beagles to hunt down legal technicalities to thwart the many hours of efforts by cattlemen and officials seems shortsighted and counterproductive.

Just what is the New Civil Liberties Alliance?

“The New Civil Liberties Alliance is a nonprofit civil rights organization founded by prominent legal scholar Philip Hamburger to defend constitutional freedoms—primarily against the Administrative State. NCLA’s public-interest litigation and other pro bono advocacy strive to tame the administrative power. We need a new civil liberties movement to fight against the erosion of Americans’ basic constitutional rights.

“NCLA views the Administrative State as an especially serious threat to constitutional freedoms.”

This is rich. No other agricultural organization in recent history (not counting the Grange and like groups in the 1890s and early 1900s) has more often and in more strident tones begged for government action to fix things they didn’t like. Even now, the two lawsuits R-CALF has launched are asking the federal government to punish the packers and hamstring or destroy our agricultural checkoffs. Who are they kidding?

That’s not counting lawsuits against USDA regarding BSE and mCOOL.

And while USDA proposed this change in the identification method in April of 2019, it took R-CALF until now to talk some organization into taking up their cudgels.

I cannot argue with the principles the NCLA outlines above. I agree wholeheartedly. But a short study of R-CALF’s positions and actions over the last 20 years would have easily revealed the group’s heart and soul. 

Taking this case on over technicalities may look like it fits the NCLA to their attorneys’ short-term eyes. But it flies in the face of the work of the majority of cattlemen, their groups, their veterinary and technical allied industries for nearly two decades of hard work trying to fashion a system of protecting our industry.

Dittmer is a longtime beef industry commentator and executive vice president of the Agribusiness Freedom Foundation.

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