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EU Court Stands Firm on Electronic Sheep Tags

(CN) - A German sheep herder must comply with EU tagging requirements aimed at protecting the world from foot and mouth disease, Europe's highest court ruled.

Up until a major outbreak of the disease in 2001, the EU required sheep and goat herders to mark their animals only with an ear tag or tattoo. During the outbreak, officials slaughtered millions of untagged animals that they could not trace to their owners - only to discover that 80 percent of the animals were clean.

This led European lawmakers to require that animals carry two forms of identification: a traditional ear tag and an electronic tracking device. The law also required owners to record and track every animal in their herds, while member states had to set up databases that tracked the animals nationally as well.

German sheep herder Herbert Schaible balked against the requirements, and asked the administrative court in Stuttgart to find that he need not identify his 450 ewes in any way - not by ear tag, tracking device or in a registry. The German court asked the Court of Justice of the European Union whether such requirements infringed on Schaible's freedom to conduct business or the principle of equal treatment.

Unfortunately for Schaible, the EU high court found Thursday that worldwide food safety trumps his right to conduct business as he sees fit.

"According to the case law of the court, the freedom to conduct a business is not absolute," the Luxembourg-based court wrote. "It may be subject to a broad range of interventions on the part of public authorities which may limit the exercise of economic activity in the public interest."

The justices added: "Health protection, the control of epizootic diseases and the welfare of animals, objectives which overlap, constitute legitimate objectives in the public interest pursued by European Union legislation, as well as the completion in the sector concerned of the agricultural internal market."

Although Schaible argued that the tracking methods do not control the disease and that 5 percent of the electronic devices fail, the court held that traceability remains an essential element of halting the spread of animal epidemics.

"In the event of epizootic disease, that information is fundamental to carry out accurate epidemiological studies, identify dangerous contacts that are liable to spread the disease and, consequently, enable the competent authorities to take the necessary measures to prevent the spread of such contagious disease," the court wrote. "It must be added that movements of sheep largely contributed to the spread of foot and mouth disease in certain parts of the European Union during the outbreak in 2001."

Schaible blamed the 2001 outbreak on lazy agricultural officials and inefficient controls, arguing that the EU should have addressed those issues instead of laying down new - and expensive - requirements on ranchers. Furthermore, he said the electronic devices hurt the animals no matter how they're administered.

But the court found that it was correct for the EU Legislature "to consider, first, that the animals must be individually identified and that the competent authorities must have access to the data that, as a result of the electronic identifiers and holding registers, allow the necessary measures to be adopted in order to prevent and limit the spread of infectious diseases among ovine and caprine animals and, secondly, that the old system of identifying the holding was not as efficient a means of ensuring the objectives."

As to the cost burden - identified by Schaible as an extra $27 per animal each year - the court suggested that prices of electronic devices would come down over time with improvements in technology and market proliferation.

Meanwhile, the price of another epidemic in the EU far outweighs the rancher's costs, according to the ruling. The 2001 outbreak, centered in the U.K., cost that country $13 billion - a number that does not reflect the subsequent EU-wide ban on meat products.

The court rejected Schaible's claim that the law improperly discriminates against sheep and goat herders by only applying to them, even though pigs and cattle can also contract the disease.

"Sheep and goats are normally subject to more movements than cattle and pigs and, unlike cattle and pigs, they are also more often traded through auctions of very large lots," the court wrote. "Moreover, the groups of sheep and goats change composition more frequently than cattle and pigs. In the case of foot and mouth disease, the risk of contagion is higher among sheep and goats than among pigs. These circumstances obviously make it more difficult to identify and trace each ovine and caprine animal."

Given that and the details of the 2001 outbreak, "the European Union legislature could legitimately introduce specific legislation providing for the electronic identification of species particularly affected by that crisis," the court concluded.

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