The natural beef muddle continues: As the U.S. Department of Agriculture extended its comment period for a naturally raised beef standard, it also introduced its "Never, Ever 3" program, which basically mimics the criteria set forth in the standard. In January, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration declined to define natural for any food.
"We're concerned there will be confusion and dysfunction among consumers with all the 'natural' beef designations," said Dave Carter, executive director of the National Bison Association. Carter pointed out that in addition to the Never, Ever 3 program and the proposed naturally raised standard, the USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service also has a natural-beef standard. "It's been around since the early '80s, defining natural beef as minimally processed, with nothing artificial added during processing," Carter said. Critics argue that standard is too vague to be meaningful.
Never, Ever 3 was approved in January as one of the USDA's Agricultural Marketing Service's process-verified programs. Users pay a fee and show an auditing paper trail to participate; in return, they can use the program logo as part of their marketing campaigns. Never, Ever 3 stipulates that meat products come from animals that are never given growth hormones, antibiotics or animal byproducts.
Producers that participate in the program must track their animals from birth to death and be verified once a year by an ISO-approved auditor, according to Leann Saunders, vice president of IMI Global, a Castle Rock, Colo., livestock-verification service provider. In early February, IMI launched its Simply Natural Beef marketing label, the first to qualify under the Never, Ever 3 program.
Saunders said Never, Ever 3 is basically the same as the proposed naturally raised standard, which reads: "Livestock used for the production of meat and meat products have been raised entirely without growth promotants, antibiotics, and have never been fed mammalian or avian byproducts."
Saunders said IMI Global has been working with the USDA for three years on the Never, Ever 3 standard, and it just happened to be the first of the new natural-beef standards to be approved. "We're happy to have a set standard," she said. "Anything regulatory is so slow to move."
That's been the case with the naturally raised standard, which recently had its comment period extended from early February to March 3. During that comment period, some meat producers have been calling for the naturally raised designation to go beyond the Never, Ever 3 criteria.
"Naturally raised meat must be a 'never-ever' product" but it also "must mean that the animals were raised in an environment that promotes sustainability," said Niman Ranch CEO Jeff Swain, in a statement. Niman, based in Alameda, Calif., wants the naturally raised standard to include ample access to pasture and comfortable housing, not only for the animals' well-being, but also to ensure meat safety and protect the environment. "Raising animals in confined animal-feeding operations should not be labeled as naturally raised, as these operations pose a documented threat to our air and water quality," Swain said.