On January 12, USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service rescinded the standards for the grassfed marketing claim. These were the minimal standards behind the grassfed label found on meat sold wholesale or retail. The reasons for the rescission are somewhat unclear, but according to AMS representatives, they have reinterpreted their authority and decided that developing and maintaining marketing standards does not fit within their agency.
After a lengthy public process that lasted several years, AMS introduced the grassfed standard in 2006. USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service, the regulatory arm that approves meat labels, was charged with enforcing the standard for those who chose to use it. But because FSIS required no audit or other verification other than a producer-signed affidavit, the term was sometimes misused and was often confusing, both for producers and consumers. The growth of grassfed demand in the marketplace only fueled the misperceptions.
Going forward, FSIS will continue to approve the grassfed label claim, but producers will each define their own standards. FSIS is only considering the feeding protocol in their label approvals — other issues such as confinement; use of antibiotics and hormones; and the source of the animals, meat, and dairy products will be left up to the producer.
So what does this mean?
• For American Grassfed Association Approved Producers, there will be no change. AGA’s standards are more comprehensive and stringent than the AMS standard, and FSIS will continue to accept those standards for the grassfed claim. AGA certified producers may continue using the AGA logo on their meat labels.
• Non-AGA certified producers using the AMS grassfed standards as the basis for their label claim must update their paperwork with FSIS, but will not have to reapply for label approval. They will have to assert that the standards they use are their own.
• Producers who have never used the grassfed claim may seek grassfed label approval from FSIS as long as they provide “documentation about what grassfed means to them,” according to Tammie Ballard of FSIS.
• Producers who feed grain can make a grassfed claim if they spell out the percentage of grass on the label: 90 percent grassfed, 75 percent grassfed, 10 percent grassfed, and so on. Ballard says this has always been true, and approval is on a case-by-case basis. How this is enforced is unclear, however.
• The Small and Very Small program will continue, and AMS will be in touch with those producers to discuss any changes.
The unfortunate thing for producers who have worked hard to build quality grassfed programs is that, with no common standards in place, they will be competing in the marketplace with the industrial meatpackers who can co-opt the grassfed label.
Once again, consumers lose out on transparency and an understanding of what they’re buying. Grassfed has always been a source of some confusion, but now, with no common standards underpinning it, consumers will find it increasingly difficult to trust the grassfed label. Like other mostly meaningless label terms like natural, cage-free, and free-range, grassfed will become just another feel-good marketing ploy used by the major meatpackers to dupe consumers into buying mass-produced, grain-fed, feedlot meat.