WASHINGTON, Jan. 13, 2016 - USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service is getting rid of its labeling standards for grass-fed and naturally raised livestock, which will allow producers to develop their own. The notice was published in the Jan. 12 Federal Register.

“Because AMS does not have express authority to define grass-fed or naturally raised, it is inappropriate for the agency to offer it as an AMS-defined marketing claim,” the agency said on its website. “Instead, companies can use voluntary USDA-Certified or USDA-Verified programs to verify compliance with standards that they develop.”

Applicants often seek to market the USDA-verified marketing claim on their food product labels, the service said, but in order to do so for meat products, they must get approval ahead of time from the Food Safety and Inspection Service, which regulates food labels. “Without express authority from Congress, it is not AMS’ role to define standards; that responsibility lies with FSIS,” AMS said.

Users of the marketing claim can convert the USDA grass-fed claim into their private grass-fed standard, use another recognized grass-fed standard, or develop a new grass-fed standard, AMS said. They will have until Feb. 11 to identify the standard they wish to use, and until April 11 to implement it.

The decision received swift criticism from the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, whose policy director said, “Actions such as this take us into a Wild West situation, where anything goes and both farmers and consumers lose.”

NSAC’s Ferd Hoefner said the voluntary standard had “widespread farm and consumer support” and that rescinding it would make meat labeling “even more confusing for farmers and consumers.”

Simply because there’s no guarantee that FSIS would approve a marketing claim is no reason to abandon the standard entirely, he said.

“It is both sad and true that these two USDA agencies often do not coordinate, and, worse yet, that in some cases FSIS has looked the other way, allowing particularly unscrupulous meat companies to abuse the USDA standard,” Hoefner said. “The common sense solution is not to revoke the standard, but instead to tackle siloing and lack of interagency communication head-on.”

The grass-fed label claim standard is nearly 10 years old, having been published in the Federal Register on May 12, 2006. It resulted from “several years of meetings between farmers and farm and consumer organizations sponsored by AMS and facilitated by NSAC, as well as by a formal public notice and comment process,” NSAC said.

Among the standard’s requirements were that “grass, forbs, and forage needed to be 99 percent or more of the energy source for the lifetime of a ruminant species after weaning in order to qualify as grass fed.” NSAC said. “Prior to the setting of that standard, grain fed animals were often sold as grass-fed, with USDA’s approval.” 

But AMS spokesman Samuel Jones-Ellard said that “without express authority from Congress – as with the National Organic Program – AMS does not have the statutory authority to define labeling standards and determine if food marketing claims are truthful and not misleading.  Because AMS does not have express authority to define “grass-fed” or “naturally raised,” it is inappropriate for the agency to offer these as AMS-defined marketing claims.”

Jones-Ellard added that “only about six companies were using the USDA grass-fed standard, and we are working directly with them to ensure there is no negative impact due to this clarification of AMS’s role.” 

A spokesman for the North American Meat Institute said, “At this point we’re just evaluating the change to determine what it means for our members.”

A conference call to discuss the changes will be held with stakeholders on Jan. 14.


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