USDA cuts 'grass fed' label standard

by Erica Shaffer
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WASHINGTON – The Agriculture Marketing Service of the US Dept. of Agriculture announced the agency has withdrawn label standards for grass fed and naturally raised livestock label claims used in livestock and meat marketing.

Specifically, the affected claims are the Grass (Forage) Fed Claim for Ruminant Livestock and the Meat Products Derived from Such Livestock (Grass (Forage) Fed Marketing Claim Standard); and the Naturally Raised Claim for Livestock and the Meat and Meat Products Derived From Such Livestock (Naturally Raised Marketing Claim Standard).

AMS made the decision to withdraw the label claims after the agency determined that “certain services” didn’t fit within the agency’s statutory authority. AMS explained that applicants seeking to use the USDA-verified market claims for meat products must receive pre-approval from the Food Safety and Inspection Service or meat standards set by the US Food and Drug Administration.

“The authority over production/marketing claim verification and food labeling approval presents challenges to companies wishing to market USDA-verified production/marketing claims on food labels, because there is no guarantee that an USDA-verified production/marketing claim will be approved by FSIS or FDA,” AMS said.

The agency added that it is not AMS’ role to define standards without express authority from Congress. That responsibility lies with FSIS.

“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. “Instead, companies can use voluntary USDA-Certified or USDA­Verified programs to verify compliance with standards that they develop.”

But the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition argued the decision makes meat labeling even more consumers for producers and consumers. NSAC said the problem is the lack of communication between USDA’s agencies, not the labels.

“…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,” Ferd Hoefner, policy director for NSAC, said in a statement. “But the common sense solution is not to revoke the standard, but instead to tackle siloing and lack of interagency communication head-on.”

Hoefner said the action “take us into a Wild West situation where anything goes and both farmers and consumers lose.”

The Federal Register notice gives producers who used the standard 30 days to use another recognized grass-fed standard, converting the USDA Grass (Forage) Fed Marketing Claim Standard into their private grass-fed standard or develop a new grass-fed standard.

The agency has scheduled a Jan. 14 conference call for stakeholders, and said individual stakeholders would be contacted by the Quality and Assessment Division (QAD). AMS noted that USDA’s Grass Fed Small and Very Small Producer Program (SVS) will remain intact, and that there is no impact from withdrawing the USDA Naturally Raised Marketing Claim Standard because there are no companies currently using the standard.
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