March 22, 2017
Since forming in 2003, the American Grassfed Association has put forth a certification program seal verifying grassfed claims. Today, the organization is spreading the gospel and extending the seal to cover dairy products. Why? Because, more than ever, grassfed is being extensively marketed. And, per AGA executive director Carrie Balkcom, it’s being marketed deceptively. “We never wanted to be the grassfed police,” Balkcom told NBJ. “Unfortunately, I think we’re going to have to be, to some degree. We’re going to have to start calling some people out. It’s not pleasant, but it’s got to be done.”
NBJ: How do you define grassfed?
Balkcom: One-hundred-percent forage-based diet is the main one. No antibiotics, no added hormones, no confinement, and good animal husbandry. Having said no confinement, you are allowed to hold your animals if you need to work your herd, for doctoring, for vaccinations or to check them, those kinds of things. The amount of days you can hold them is very specific. It’s not for long periods of time.
NBJ: What is the inspection process?
Balkcom: Each one of our standards is turned into an audit module. When the inspector comes to the farm, they go through each standard. It could take 45 minutes to an hour if you’re small, and up to five hours if you’re large. For supplements like minerals and things that you’re feeding your animals, we need the ingredient list so we can look for banned substances, like grains, animal byproducts, etc. You can have it done every 15 months, or if you want to follow the organic rule, every 12 months. We want to make it as affordable as convenient for the farmer.
NBJ: Who performs the inspections?
Balkcom: We have several companies that do it. Anybody that’s an organic certifier can do it. If you have a veterinarian that has a practice as a large animal ruminants specialist, they can do it. We do have some people that use their extension or NRCS [Natural Resource Conservation Service] agent, but that’s at the discretion of those people.
NBJ: What is the bigger problem in the marketplace, dairy or meat?
Balkcom: You can’t quantify it. We’ve just come online with dairy. Some of the bigger dairy brands were tired of trying to compete with people that had grassfed labels when they weren’t grassfed. So that’s big right now because we’ve just finished the standards. We have a lot of interest in dairy, especially with milk because it’s kids. People are concerned about what they’re feeding their kids. Since our meat standards have been in the marketplace since ‘09, we already have a little market traction with that. The informed consumers can find the information they’re looking for, but they have to look for it and they have to want to know it. They can’t rely on product labels to do that for them at this point in the marketplace because there’s so much misinformation out there.
NBJ: Is ‘grassfed but grain finished’ a legitimate distinction?
Balkcom: It’s either grass fed or it’s not, y’know? It’s either sugar-free or it’s not. The ruminant animal is designed to take cellulose, which is grass, and turn it into energy. When you add grains, that’s what causes the problems in the digestive system of the animal and makes them ill and non-productive. But it makes them fat!
NBJ: What can consumers do?
Balkcom: Look for our seal. It’s a little green seal with four blades of grass on it. That way you know the farm has been inspected and meets our standards. That’s in the retail marketplace and at the farmers’ market.
NBJ: Do you think the USDA should become involved?
Balkcom: I think that they should not give labels for grassfed. That’s a hard one. There should be some oversight on what goes on a label. They do recognize our label but they’re overworked and understaffed in maintaining that label integrity.
NBJ: If the National Organic Program was followed to the letter, spirit and the intent of the law, would it inherently be grassfed?
Balkcom: No. Organic is about monitoring inputs. It works really well for fruits and vegetables. When you have animals out on open pasture it’s very hard to define exactly what they’ve eaten unless you’re watching them 24/7, which you’re not. What you’re trying to do is maintain the integrity of the pasture, the animal, and those kinds of things. You need to look for a pasture-based component. Organic has some of that, but we took it one step further. Also, NOP is a government program. For small producers, it can be a prohibitive expense. We’re very affordable for producers.
NBJ: What can retailers do?
Balkcom: Ask for certification. We’ve got a good one. I understand buying. You’re talking to the broker or the supplier who says, “Yeah, this is grassfed.” We see that all the time. They need the education as well, because they’re being told something that may or may not be true, and they haven’t had a chance to delve into exactly what’s going on. It’s reached critical mass. It’s time for us to be honest with the consumer about what they’re getting.
From Nutrition Business Journal's 2017 Dark issue. Get the full issue in the NBJ store.
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