BRUSSELS (Reuters) - British and Irish lawmakers in the European Parliament launched a campaign on Tuesday against a rule that would make electronic tags for millions of sheep and goats across the EU compulsory from next year.
Britain has by far the European Union’s largest flock, with around 33 million sheep, roughly a quarter of the bloc’s total. Spain follows closely, then Greece.
Last year, EU farm ministers agreed to introduce electronic tags by the end of 2009, part of a strategy to prevent epidemics of contagious diseases like foot-and-mouth and replace a system where flocks of sheep and herds of goats are only tracked when moved from farm to farm, sold at market or sent for slaughter.
British MEPs have condemned the idea and have launched a cross-party campaign to pressure the European Commission, the EU’s executive arm that authored the law later agreed by ministers, to reopen negotiations to make tagging voluntary.
“The idea that 33 million sheep in Britain will be tagged by January 2010, it’s frankly not going to happen. The Commission is living in cloud cuckoo land,” said UK Conservative MEP Neil Parish, also chairman of the Parliament’s agriculture committee.
“I do think the Commission has to come and see the effects of what they are proposing,” he told a news conference.
The MEPs complain that the tagging scheme will be very expensive and difficult to implement, particularly in hillside areas. Their campaign against compulsory tagging is also supported by French sheep farmers, industry sources say.
While the European Parliament has no formal power to change the rules agreed by ministers, it has a history of generating enough pressure that the Commission does occasionally act.
The most recent example was with EU imports of Brazilian beef, where farm groups backed by MEPs were instrumental in convincing the Commission to impose trade restrictions.
Unique identifier codes will be carried by the animal either on an eartag or inside its digestive tract. The ID number can then be read using either a portable or fixed electronic reader.
Electronic identifiers cost between 1 and 2 euros ($1.45 and $2.90) per animal, while the minimum cost of hand-held readers is 200 euros and that of static readers 1,000 euros.
The aim is to ensure full and rapid traceability back to each animal if there is a disease outbreak, since electronic tagging allows individual animal codes to be read directly into data processing systems.
Commission officials say the new regulation is already flexible enough, with transitional measures agreed for the start-up period of the tagging system.
“The Commission has addressed the specific concerns of the sheep sector in relation to EID (electronic identification) and facilitated as much as possible its smooth introduction,” one official said.
“On the other hand, the Commission cannot ignore that several member states have made considerable efforts in introducing EID and further delays would not be justifiable.”
Reporting by Jeremy Smith; Editing by Michael Urquhart