During the summer months of 2020, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) allocated funds to purchase up to eight million radio frequency identification (RFID) ear tags for cattle and bison, providing the new technology to producers initially free of charge. The investment comes in the form of the reader, which may vary from a $400 phone accessory to $1,300 for a standalone unit. A reader transmits a radio frequency, which is deflected by the RFID. The RFID itself varies in price, although potentially costing less than $5 per unit. Depending on the type of RFID, the range it can be read varies from a few meters to 100 meters.
The switch from metal tags to RFID will begin in 2021. RFID tags will potentially be required by January 1, 2023. If an animal has a metal ear tag on that date, it will need to be tagged with RFID capabilities. Feeder cattle and animals moving directly to slaughter may be exempt from this requirement.
The thinking behind the transition to RFID for cattle and bison is enhanced tracing capabilities due to interstate travel and tracing to isolate disease outbreaks, such as hoof and mouth disease. RFID is standard in the European cattle industry, tracing as far as birth to consumer product. APHIS has said the purpose of RFID in beef cattle, dairy cattle, and bison is to trace animal disease, not to trace food safety outbreaks. The technology exists to trace meat from farm to fork in the future, which is important in regard to foodborne illness outbreaks. Additionally, in formation of products from multiple sources, such as ground beef, traceability allows better detection of the contaminated source, thereby removing fault from additional producers. Products with RFID traceability may be considered niche and demand higher prices from consumers.
Producers in the industry are split on the requirement of RFID for traceability. Concerns are over accessibility and control of personal data and registration of premises and premise ID numbers. Producers who support the transition to RFID acknowledge the ability to mitigate disease outbreaks that can cause large financial losses.
RFID tags would potentially be distributed to state veterinarians. Today, ranches likely employ brands, metal ear tags, and/or tattoos to distinguish animals. Wyoming does not have productions-scale slaughter operations, so cattle are frequently moved across state lines. Outside of agriculture, RFID technology is used in toll passes, inventory of products in stores, passports, etc. If required by the USDA, RFID reduces the amount of time required to trace an outbreak, down from days or weeks to mere hours.