The Department of Agriculture plans to reexamine how the agency substantiates claims such as “raised without antibiotics” and “free-range” that companies use to market their meat and poultry products.

Currently, USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) approves voluntary claims that can be added to labels. FSIS updated its guidelines most recently in 2019 and has received requests asking the agency to reevaluate these claims and how they are substantiated. The agency plans to revise the industry guidelines recommending companies strengthen the documentation submitted to the agency to substantiate those claims.

In a statement, Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack said, “Consumers should be able to trust that the label claims they see on products bearing the USDA mark of inspection are truthful and accurate.”

Vilsack added the action will ensure the integrity of those claims and “level the playing field for producers who are truthfully using these claims, which we know consumers value and rely on to guide their meat and poultry purchasing decisions.”

USDA's release specifically references claims like “free-range,” “grass-fed” and antibiotic verbiage, specifically “raised without antibiotics.” The Antibiotic Resistance Action Center (ARAC) and Food ID published research in April 2022 which found that a “substantial portion” of cattle destined for that market had actually been given antibiotics.

In a statement, ARAC Founder Lance Price said it is important that USDA’s claims be backed by “empirical testing to validate producers who are truthfully using these claims and protect consumers from false and misleading labels.”

FSIS plans to partner with USDA's Agricultural Research Service to conduct a sampling project to assess antibiotic residues in cattle destined for the “raised without antibiotics” market.

“The results of this project will help inform whether FSIS should require that laboratory testing results be submitted for the ‘raised without antibiotics’ claim or state a new verification sampling program,” USDA said in its release.

Price welcomed the FSIS study, which would be similar to ARAC’s study conducted last year. USDA said the actions could be used to guide potential future rulemaking on animal-raising claims.

“The agency said it could also decide to conduct its own periodic testing of animals raised under the RWA label,” Price said. “RWA production is a market-based solution to a serious public health issue, but the system only works if labels are verified.”

USDA said it “looks forward to continued engagement with stakeholders as it works to ensure these claims meet consumer expectations.”

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Sarah Little, spokesperson for the North American Meat Institute, said in a statement to Agri-Pulse, “We look forward to working with USDA to ensure labels are truthful and not misleading.”

National Cattlemen’s Beef Association Vice President of Government Affairs Ethan Lane said they support efforts at USDA's Agricultural Marketing Service that create opportunities to add value and distinguish products in a way that consumers can trust. 

“Labeling claims provide value back to cattle producers across the country who go the extra mile to distinguish their product for consumers,” Lane said. “We will also work with FSIS to ensure the agency is meeting its separate and distinct food safety mandate.”

Lia Biondo, executive vice president at the U.S. Cattlemen's Association told Agri-Pulse that “USCA supports truthful and transparent labeling on consumer goods — whether it’s a package of beef or a button-down shirt.” 

She added USCA’s producer members use a variety of animal-raising and production practices to match the preferences of consumers in their area. “We applaud USDA’s efforts to ensure that when a voluntary label claim is made, there is unequivocal evidence to support it,” Biondo said.

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