Ear Tag Scam Uncovered

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By Mbatjiua Ngavirue WINDHOEK A growing illegal market in FAN Meat ear tags is undermining the traceability system in the livestock trade and can potentially threaten Namibian beef exports to the European Union. A number of reliable sources say there is a thriving black market in FAN Meat ear tags, particularly in communal farming areas. The price of the ear tags from approved official suppliers is normally N$6.20, but they are reported to be selling for as much as N$100, N$150 or even N$200 on the black market. The practise seems to be especially rife at auctions held at Onderombapa and Corridor 13 in Aminuis, Epukiro and Otjombinde in the Omaheke Region. At some of these places, traders can be found doing brisk business in illegally selling the yellow FAN Meat ear tags, in addition providing branding services. The traders normally bring their own branding irons with them, which customers can then use to re-brand their cattle after purchasing the ear tags. The re-branding of cattle normally takes place some distance away from the auction pens to escape the unwelcome attention of veterinary inspectors. The same sources say that most of the illegal traders do not even own cattle of their own and in fact make a full-time living from only selling ear tags. This has outraged farmers who work hard to make an honest living from farming. They are concerned the irresponsible activities of the black-market traders might threaten their entire livelihood. The traders are however only taking advantage of a loophole in the system created by the Meat Board. The loophole makes it possible for people, who own no cattle, or only a handful of small stock and in some cases no stock at all, to register as producers and be given a brand number. Another problem is that those who buy cattle at auctions do not take the trouble to match the ear tag numbers with the brand to see whether they are compatible. Chairman of the Meat Board Paul Strydom this week tried to deny this is possible. It is however common knowledge in many villages in the Herero-speaking communal areas that there are people with brand numbers who do not own stock. Sometimes, as many as three or four members of a single family in a village may have their own individual brand numbers even though only one or two actually own stock. Isolated incidents of ear tags being sold illegally have also been reported in other communal areas, although it appears to be less common than in Aminuis at this stage. The problem was more common in the initial stages when the ear tags first became compulsory for all cattle being marketed in the country at the beginning of this year. The vast majority of communal farmers were caught unprepared by this move. They failed to order ear tags in time, but needed to sell cattle urgently in order to pay school fees and meet daily living expenses. Those with an entrepreneurial spirit quickly saw a money-making opportunity and stepped in to meet demand in the newly created market. The market appears to have continued to thrive in some areas despite the fact that supply delays with ear tags are no longer a factor. This is because some people are either too lazy or uninformed to order their own ear tags, and would rather pay exorbitant prices for illegal ones. Chief Veterinary Officer in the Omaheke region Dr Milton Maseke says the authorities have even gone as far as accrediting local farmers’ associations to sell the ear tags. He said this was specifically done to make it easier for farmers in remote communal areas to acquire FAN Meat ear tags. Maseke said his office was aware of rumours that the illegal selling of ear tags is taking place, but they have so far been unable to catch the culprits red-handed. “This is an illegal activity and if we catch someone there will be consequences,” he warned. He gave the assurance his office would actively follow the matter up by putting veterinary inspectors on alert so that the offenders can be brought to book. “This threatens the entire traceability system and we will appreciate information from any source about the people who are doing this. This is very disturbing!” he said. There appear to be difficulties in policing the FAN Meat system because different bodies are involved that work completely independently from each other. The Meat Board registers producers and issues brand numbers, but has no inspectorate to verify whether applicants actually own stock or not. The whole issue clearly makes agricultural officials very nervous because of the catastrophic consequences the abuses could have for the Namibian beef industry. What they fear is the possibility of the European Union suddenly imposing a moratorium on Namibian beef exports if traceability requirements are violated. If this happens, many tens of millions of Namibian dollars in beef exports to the EU could be lost. Chief Veterinarian for Animal Disease Control Dr Frans Joubert said whenever they hear rumours of FAN Meat ear tags being sold illegally, they immediately investigate. In one case they found one culprit, but they are still investigating two other cases. He says the directorate will open a case of fraud against anyone found illegally selling FAN meat ear tags. Meat Board Chairman Paul Strydom appeared ignorant about the practice, saying if it is occurring, veterinary services and auctioneers should have reported it to the board.