Natural Foods Merchandiser

Producers have beef with grass-fed label

USDA standard may leave shoppers foraging for understanding

On Oct. 17, the Agricultural Marketing Service, a division of U.S. Department of Agriculture, announced the creation of a voluntary standard for grass-fed meat.

  • The standard was first proposed in December 2002 and reintroduced in May 2006.
  • The current standard has been revised based on consumer input, according to the AMS.
  • Producers may now request that USDA verify their claims through a third-party audit procedure.


Now, instead of requiring that 80 percent of an animal's diet come from grass and forage, the revised standard stipulates 99 percent.?However, the new standard, published in the Federal Register (Vol. 72 No. 199), has been met with criticism from some grass-fed beef producers.

"It's not going to clarify for consumers that they're getting what they think, but instead make it more confusing," said Patricia Whisnant, DVM, president of the American Grassfed Association, based in Denver. "The AGA took issue with the standard for several reasons: It doesn't restrict the use of hormones or antibiotics in the animal's diet and doesn't stipulate that the animal spend all its life on pasture. Theoretically, an animal could still be 'finished' at a feedlot prior to slaughter, as long as it was fed hay and grasses instead of a grain-based diet.

Whisnant also objected to a loophole in the standard that states that "incidental supplementation may occur . . . to ensure the animal's well being at all times during adverse physical or environmental conditions."

"Consumers believe that the term [grass-fed] should be applied to animals raised on pasture, not at the feedlot," Whisnant said.?"And the language about supplemental feeding leaves the door wide open to all kinds of abuse. As a vet, I can come up with a reason any day of the year that an animal needs supplemental something."

The standard received a more favorable reception from Jo Robinson, creator of the Web site and author of Pasture Perfect (Vashon Island Press, 2006).?"I understand why USDA wanted to deal with a single issue," Robinson said. "There's no way that USDA could come up with a definition that is comprehensive and covered all details of animal production and get people to agree.?I understand the strategy, but it's not efficient."

Robinson said she expects that USDA will eventually develop separate labels for hormone-free and antibiotic-free.?"That leaves room for the American Grassfed Association to come up with a label of their own, and the enlightened consumers will go for the more comprehensive definition," she said.

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