CHEYENNE, Wyo. – The Ranchers Cattlemen Action Legal Fund United Stockgrowers of America (R-CALF USA) and four ranchers from Wyoming and South Dakota recently launched a lawsuit to stop implementation of a federal livestock traceability program.

Some background: In April this year, the US Dept. of Agriculture (USDA) released a factsheet explaining the agency’s plan to transition to radio frequency identification (RFID) tags from metal ear tags for cattle and bison. The rationale behind the move is to enhance animal health officials’ ability to locate specific animals during a disease outbreak.

“It might have taken weeks or months to determine which animals need to be tested using paper records,” USDA said, “but with electronic identification, it could be as short as a few hours.”

The agency went on to note additional benefits of an electronic ID system such as reducing the number of animals involved in disease investigations and ensuring animal movements from affected areas happen quickly while ensuring other stakeholders in the chain don’t receive exposed animals. USDA plans to implement the transition starting Dec. 31 when the agency will discontinue providing free metal ear tags. The deadline to reach full implementation of the plan is Jan. 1, 2023.

R-CALF is challenging USDA’s argument. The rancher group stated in the complaint that USDA lacks the legal authority to mandate RFID use and issued the plan without allowing time for public comment and without publishing it in the Federal Register.

The lawsuit also alleges that the plan currently violates current traceability regulations as established under the “Traceability of Livestock Moving Interstate” final rule published in January of 2013.

“The 2013 Final Rule established minimum national identification and documentation requirements for the traceability of livestock moving interstate,” according to the lawsuit. “The 2013 final rule also prohibits states and Native American tribes from requiring livestock producers to use RFID for the interstate movement of livestock, the complaint states.

“… there is no question that it is intended as a ‘substantive’ or ‘legislative’ rule that is designed to impose legally binding obligations on livestock producers,” the lawsuit states. “The 2019 RFID Plan requirements are in fact intended to repeal and replace critically important aspects of the 2013 Final Rule, including in relation to approved livestock identification methods as well as the types of livestock covered.”

Harriet Hageman, senior litigation counsel with the New Civil Liberties Alliance (NCLA) that filed the lawsuit, said in a statement, “This case is important well beyond the livestock industry. Under our Constitution, Congress is the legislative branch responsible for making the law. The executive branch, which encompasses USDA and APHIS, is tasked with carrying it out.

“Congress has not passed legislation requiring animal RFID, these agencies have,” Hageman said. “Of even greater concern is the fact that they did so through the back door and without following the law. Forcing livestock producers to adhere to an RFID program will have an enormous impact on their operations, with noncompliance resulting in the denial of access to interstate markets.”