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Natural Foods Merchandiser

USDA's labels may confuse consumers

Following the U.S. Department of Agriculture's recent announcement of a process-verified claim for grass-fed beef, some in the natural meats industry wonder if there will soon be too many value-added labels, sowing confusion among consumers and costing small producers too much money.

The standard, introduced Oct. 17, requires that for an animal to be considered grass-fed, 99 percent of its diet must come from grass.

Process-verified—or third-party veri?fied—claims, such as grass-fed, are voluntary. If the grass-fed claim is verified, a producer may use a USDA grass-fed seal. But producers can label a product grass fed without going through the process, although they cannot use the official USDA seal.

"What I'm concerned about is that one arm of USDA handles the process-verified claims, while another arm controls the labeling regulations on what you can and can't say," said Dave Carter, executive director of the National Bison Association.

The two arms he's referring to are the Agricultural Marketing Service, which oversees both the organic program and process-verified claims, and the Food Safety and Inspection Service, which has label oversight.

"My take on the proliferation of labels is that, as happened with organic, demand has reached the point where big producers are eyeing how they can get a piece of these higher prices with the least amount of effort and expense," said Bonnie Azab Powell, founder of the food and politics blog

There is also disagreement in the natural meats industry on whether the new grass-fed label goes far enough. Groups like the American Grassfed Association would like to see stricter labeling, with requirements for antibiotic- and hormone-free production methods and the percentage of the year the animals have access to pasture.

"The use of hormones and antibiotics is clearly covered in the organic rule, which can overlay the new grass-fed claim," said Mack Graves, CEO of Panorama Grass-Fed Meats, based in Vino, Calif. "In my view, the AGA is trying to keep [grass-fed meats] a cottage industry."

"There's no way USDA could get everyone to agree on a comprehensive definition," said Jo Robinson, founder of and author of Pasture Perfect (Vashon Island Press, 2006). "I understand the strategy, but it's not efficient. And consumers expect more of a gestalt. They expect grass-fed to also mean that the animals and the land are treated well."

In addition to grass fed, two branches of the USDA may soon offer competing definitions of the key term ?natural.' The AMS is crafting a naturally raised process-verified claim that will contradict the current FSIS definition of natural. The issue of whose definition is the right one will likely come to a head, which means more potential confusion for consumers.

Currently, the FSIS definition of natural is simply "minimally processed with no artificial ingredients." Spam maker Hormel has petitioned the government to retain its current definition of natural—a definition for which Spam qualifies.

The current definition is not embraced by natural-meat producers. "We absolutely should throw that stupid thing out, because it doesn't mean anything," Graves argued. FSIS is considering revising its definition of natural, and natural-meat producers would like to see it revised to mean hormone- and antibiotic-free, while many mainstream-meat producers want to retain the current definition, Graves said.

"They're looking at it, but from all indications it will still be a processing claim and not an animal husbandry claim," Carter said. Animal husbandry claims refer to the way an animal is raised—processing claims refer to what happens to meat after an animal is slaughtered. "AMS is looking at a process-verified claim that will include the issue of hormones and antibiotics, but will add cost for producers, because you'll have to track each animal from birth to slaughter," Carter added. "It's a system that creates extra costs and hurdles for people who are trying to do the right thing."

"The [conventional] meat industry prefers to keep the term natural as bland and meaningless as possible, despite what consumers mistakenly think it connotes," Powell said.

Mitchell Clute is a Fort Collins, Colo.-based freelance writer.

Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXVIII/number 12/p. 17

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