USDA works to preserve grass-fed labeling guidelines

Industry groups remain concerned that percentage claims could threaten integrity of 100% grass-fed marketing claims.

In response to significant criticism from producers and consumers of sustainable meats following revocation of the grass-fed label claim in early 2016, the U.S. Department of Agriculture released an animal production claims guidance document intended to ward against misleading label claims.

For nearly a decade, USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS) had overseen a voluntary labeling program for grass-fed livestock products that was well recognized by farmers and consumers alike. Earlier this year, however, AMS withdrew the standard, claiming that USDA's Food Safety & Inspection Service (FSIS) was actually the agency with the legal standing to oversee the label claim.

Following the AMS revocation of the standard, allied agricultural and consumer organizations urged FSIS to adopt the rescinded AMS standard – a respected label claim that had been developed over three years with robust stakeholder participation.

Conventional producers raise livestock on a diet of approximately 80% grass (forage) and 20% grain. Groups worried that percentage claims such as “80% grass-fed” or “90% grass-fed” would mislead consumers and dilute the meaning of the term to “grass-fed” to an extent that would threaten the livelihood of the farmers and ranchers who created the grass-fed market.

National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC) policy director Ferd Hoefner welcomed the release of the FSIS guidance document, saying, “We are pleased that FSIS has clarified through this guidance that any label claim using the term ‘grass-fed’ must meet a 100% grass-fed standard. Taking this action was necessary to preserve the label’s strong reputation, and we applaud FSIS’s swift response to producer and consumer concerns following AMS’s withdrawal of the standard earlier this year.”

Hoefner said NSAC appreciates that FSIS requires access to pasture during the growing season as part of the grass-fed definition. “This was not part of the original AMS standard but is certainly a valuable addition,” he said.

“The guidance is not perfect, however, and subsequent grass-fed claims will require stringent scrutiny. Even with this new guidance, FSIS can still approve lesser label claims, such as ‘75% grass-fed’ or ‘80% grass-fed.’ These claims are misleading for consumers and harmful to the farmers and ranchers who have built their reputations — and, indeed, an entire industry — on the 100% grass-fed standard,” he said.

Hoefner noted that USDA needs the legal authority to not only enforce strong, pro-farmer, pro-consumer standards but also to reject misleading claims. “We will continue to support FSIS in upholding a strong, 100% grass-fed label claim standard while also advocating for an improved process that does not leave the door open for misleading, lesser claims,” he said.

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