The Agriculture Department is clarifying labeling requirements for meat and poultry products, including for claims that animals are “grass-fed” or treated without antibiotics or hormones.   

Under the new guidance issued by the Food Safety and Inspection Service, beef cannot be labeled “grass fed” unless the cattle were fed grass or forage 100% of the time after being weaned. 

Since the cattle must have access to pasture until slaughter, they can never be confined to a feedlot. 

Products from animals that have less than 100 percent access to grass or forage cannot use the term grass-fed unless it’s clear to the consumer that a portion of the animal’s diet came from grain. A label could read, for example:’’Made from cows that are fed 85% grass and 15% corn.’’

The FSIS guidance, published Friday in the Federal Register, also clarifies that certified organic products can be labeled as “raised without antibiotics,” “no added hormones,” “vegetarian diet,” “no animal by-products,” “Non-GMO” and “humanely raised.” 

No documentation would be required so long as the farm that produced the livestock or poultry and the processor are certified organic under USDA standards. 

FSIS, which regulates labeling of meat and poultry, said it would allow non-organic products to be labeled as having been produced without the use of “sub-therapeutic antibiotics,” but only if there is an explanation of what that means. 

The label could explain, for example, that the animals the products came from “do not receive antibiotics on a daily basis; animals only receive antibiotics in the case of illness.” 

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Another acceptable labeling claim would be: “Beef Raised with No Sub-Therapeutic Antibiotics Ever, animals may be given antibiotics for the treatment of illness”

In developing the guidance, FSIS declined to require disclosure of antibiotic usage. The agency said it “does not consider animal production practices to be material facts that must be disclosed in the product label.”

The National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition welcomed the clarification on organic products and grass-fed beef. In the case of organic producers, accepting their USDA organic certification as evidence that they are meeting the labeling requirements for terms such as “raised without antibiotics” will “reduce unnecessary duplicative paperwork for producers," NSAC said.

FSIS also turned down appeals to require third-party certification that non-organic producers are meeting animal welfare and environmental standards that are the subject of labeling claims. 

The FSIS guidance permits animal welfare and environmental stewardship claims if the product label describes the animal-raising standards and identifies the entity that established the standards. 

The Animal Welfare Institute, which filed a petition with FSIS in 2014 to require the certification process, said labeling claims that animals are “humanely raised” aren’t being adequately policed by the agency. The petition also said that producers who voluntarily use a third-party certifier to prove they are meeting animal-welfare standards are being put at a competitive disadvantage with producers who do not. 

“Producers can continue to make high-welfare claims on their packages — and charge a premium — without actually improving the treatment of animals raised under their care,” said Dena Jones, director of the farm animal program for AWI.

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