Groups pushing for strong grass-fed standard

By Spencer Chase

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WASHINGTON, March 23, 2016 - USDA's Agricultural Marketing Service pulled the plug on a voluntary grass-fed beef labeling claim in January, and a group of stakeholders want to see something similar reinstated by the department.

On Wednesday, nine organizations sent a letter to Food Safety and Inspection Service Deputy Under Secretary Al Almanza calling for “updated guidance” for grass-fed labels. The letter said the guidance “should require that producers comply with the now revoked sgrass-fed label claim standard established by” AMS.

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“AMS's revocation of that label claim standard has contributed to confusion in the marketplace - to the detriment of grass-fed producers and consumers,” the letter said.

“No labels,” the letter continued, “should be approved that use the term grass-fed but fall short of the former AMS grass-fed label claim standard definition, as they would be extremely misleading.”

In January, AMS withdrew two voluntary marketing claim standards dealing with grass-fed beef: the Grass (Forage) Fed Marketing Claim Standard and the Naturally Raised Marketing Claim Standard. The latter, USDA said, had “never been used by anyone,” but the former was a voluntary claim used by many producers to fall under FSIS labeling claims. It was withdrawn because AMS determined that the standards “did not fit within the agency's statutory mandate.”

The letter was signed by the American Grassfed Association; Center for Rural Affairs; Consumer Federation of America; Consumer Reports; CROPP Cooperative; Food Animal Concerns Trust; National Farmers Union; National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition; and the Western Organization of Resource Councils.

Under the now defunct AMS standard, grass and forage were required to be the only feed source “consumed for the lifetime of the ruminant animal, with the exception of milk consumed prior to weaning.” Feeding of any kind of grain or grain byproducts was prohibited, and pasture access was required during growing season.

AMS and FSIS officials also addressed the matter on a stakeholder call shortly after the January announcement. On that call, Tammie Ballard, with FSIS' labeling and program delivery staff, pointed out that requirements for label claims haven't changed. She said the requirement for a grass-fed distinction is not affected by the AMS rule withdrawal. While being verified under an AMS program was accepted as rationale for labeling claims, dietary claims are still evaluated on a case-by-case basis by FSIS staff.

Ballard did note that individuals who made a grass-fed claim that referenced the AMS Grass Fed Standard in their supporting documentation would have to update that documentation to reflect which grass-fed standard they were meeting. In a question and answer portion of the call, AMS and FSIS officials admitted that there is now a lack of a federal grass-fed standard, but labeling claims will still be allowed.

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“Although FSIS recognized the AMS Grass Fed Standard, FSIS never required any references or bound any applicants to use the AMS standard in order to obtain a grass fed label,” documentation detailing the stakeholder call said.

The letter noted that FSIS staff “has indicated that they plan to include language in the updated guidance that addresses the issues that were created by AMS's revocation of their grassfed label claim standard.” FSIS did not respond to a request for comment.

According to Allen Williams, a grass-fed producer and board member for the Grassfed Exchange, grass-fed beef accounted for 7.2 percent of U.S. beef consumption in 2015, but only 0.8 percent of domestic slaughter, meaning a high amount of grass-fed beef consumed in the U.S. is imported. Most beef production outside the U.S. is grass-fed.

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