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How the USDA’s Withdrawal of “Grass-Fed” Marketing Regulations Benefits Graziers, Meat Consumers and the Environment

In mid-January, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) effectively ceased regulating ruminant meat and dairy products sold under “Grass Fed” and “Naturally Raised” labels, claiming that its Agricultural Marking Service (AMS) lacked the authority to define the phrases. Many sustainable agriculture advocates bemoaned the regulatory loss. One of the more influential voices, National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition Policy Director, Fred Hoefner, warned that USDA’s move would “take us into a Wild West situation, where anything goes and both farmers and consumers lose.” Sustainable graziers and restoration agriculturists must reject fatalisms and hyperbole, and, instead, quickly standardize a new Grass-Fed label definition that takes animal welfare, environmental impact and human nutrition into account.

Sustainable Food and Agriculture activists compare the Grass Fed decision to the equally controversial abandonment of “Country of Origin Labeling” (COOL) requirements for meat products back in December. While both affect local meat producers and consumers, the two USDA decisions differ in their relationship to the U.S. Congress. Congress legislated, and President Obama signed the redaction of COOL requirements as a part of the omnibus budget bills. For Grass Fed and Naturally Raised decision, the USDA realized that it lacked the authorization to define those phrases, like it has for other labels, such as USDA Organic. This distinction matters because with legal precedent in The Organic Foods Production Act of 1990, a motivated Congress could empower the USDA to define those labels. Sustainable and nutritious food advocates must motivate that Congress in every way possible.    

The USDA-Verified label was far from perfect. Unlike the American Grassfed Association’s labeling procedure, the USDA Verified Grass-fed label did not regulate antibiotic and hormone application, did not specify confinement restrictions, and did not guarantee regular access to pasture. And, unlike the Animal Welfare Approved Label, the USDA did not require a particular health plan for livestock benefit. Nor did the USDA label require safe working conditions, soil and water conservation, or wildlife habitat conservation, like the Food Alliance Grassfed Certification. Each of these independent labels have unique benefits, which, if standardized into a federally enforced “Grass Fed” label via congressional authorization, would further sustainability and nutrition goals.

The next USDA Grass Fed label should represent the agency’s nutritional mission with respect to essential Omega-3 fatty acids. Omega-3 and Omega-6 fatty acid nutritional “baselines” would ensure ruminants’ access to fresh pasture forage, while supporting consumer cardiovascular and neurological health. One MOTHER EARTH NEWS pilot study demonstrated that grass-fed beef rib-eyes, on average, contained almost nine times the amount of Omega-3 fatty acids and slightly less than three-quarter the Omega-6 fatty acids (providing a more healthful Omega-6 : Omega-3 ratio of 2:1). Meanwhile, intensively grazed perennial pastures stimulate carbon sequestration and rural economic development.

Until the USDA implements updated product labels, “Know Thy Farmer” is more important than ever for products sold with “Grass Fed” and “Naturally Raised” labels. Health- and sustainability minded consumers should vote for changes with their fork, dollar, and, above all, their votes, all the while offering thanks to those who raise animals on pasture using sustainable and humane practices.

Search out your local pasture producers at the farmers market or on Eat Wild, and let them know you’ll pay the premium. Then, get on the phone with your representatives and senators, or drop them an email. Labeling and label-reform has been successful before, and it will be again. Consider the “Grass Fed” and “Naturally Raised” labels—and the COOL/GMO labeling debates, for that matter—minor setbacks in a larger sustainable food revolution. When these labels are reinstated, they should be comprehensive, vetted and policed.

Josh Brewer is an Assistant Editor at MOTHER EARTH NEWS who covers Renewable Energy, Green Homes, Omega Fatty Acids Nutrition, and Nature and Environment.