Since forming in 2003, the American Grassfed Association has put forth a certification program seal verifying grass-fed claims. Today, the organization is spreading the gospel and extending the seal to cover dairy products. Why? Because, more than ever, grass fed is being extensively marketed. And, per AGA Executive Director Carrie Balkcom, it’s being marketed deceptively. “We never wanted to be the grass-fed police,” Balkcom told NFM sister publication the Nutrition Business Journal. “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.”
How do you define grass fed?
Carrie 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 number of days you can hold them is very specific.
What is the bigger problem in the marketplace—dairy or meat?
CB: 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 grass-fed labels when they weren’t grass fed. We have a lot of interest in dairy, especially with milk because it serves kids. People are concerned about what they’re feeding their kids. Because our meat standards have been in the marketplace since 2009, we already have a little market traction with that. 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 because there’s so much misinformation.
Is “grass fed but grain finished” a legitimate distinction?
CB: It’s either grass fed or it’s not, you 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 digestive problems and makes them ill and nonproductive. But it makes them fat!
If the National Organic Program was followed to the letter, spirit and the intent of the law, would it inherently be grass fed?
CB: 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 affordable for producers.
What can retailers do?
CB: 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 grass fed.’ 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.