The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) surprised the sustainable agricultural community in January by deregulating the “Grass-Fed” and “Naturally Raised” labels developed by the Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS). Ferd Hoefner, policy director at the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC), broke the news in a strongly worded statement, predicting that the USDA’s decision would “take us into a Wild West situation, where anything goes and both farmers and consumers lose.” My response was cautiously, if naively, optimistic. I hoped that deregulation might provide sustainable food and agriculture advocates the opportunity to include animal welfare, environmental impact, human nutrition, and sub-therapeutic antibiotic use in future regulation. Two months after the label loss, confusion and coalition have come hand in hand.
Nine agricultural and consumer organizations sent a letter on March 23 urging the Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) Deputy Under Secretary Al Almanza to “issue guidance” in the wake of the AMS’s withdrawal of standards. More specifically, the signees hope that the FSIS will require grass-fed producers to comply with the original Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS) standards. Established in 2002, the AMS standards were the result of two years of consensus-building among advocates and negotiations with the USDA. Advocacy groups and grassroots activists should prepare for a similar process going forward.
Supporting Hoefner’s original prediction, the letter states that “AMS’s revocation of that label claim standard has contributed to confusion in the marketplace—to the detriment of grass-fed producers and consumers.” Consumer confusion could increase if the FSIS introduces new regulations that use the phrase “grass-fed,” as many consumers associate that phrase with earlier, 100 percent grass-fed standards. A percentage system could also cause confusion, as many consumers are unaware of industrial grain-finishing practices—even feedlot beef could claim 80 percent grass-fed under a percentage-based label.
The letter specifically addresses the health-motivated consumer of red meat, a current boom to grass-fed producers, which Mother Earth News has covered since 1980. The letter supports this coverage, stating, “Numerous studies have shown, however, that meat from animals fed 99 or 100 percent grass tends to be higher in conjugated linoleic acid (CLA), long chain omega-3 fats, antioxidants and some vitamins.”
As many studies correlate long-chain, omega-3 fatty-acids with cardiovascular and, in some cases, mental wellbeing, they could ultimately serve as the regulatory marker for products labeled “grass-fed.” For example, if a sample were required to contain 8 percent omega-3 fatty-acids, or 80mg per 100g of sample, and no more than 1 percent omega-6 fatty-acids, regulators could verify both the intended human-health effects, and grazing practices.
It’s heartening to see the American Grassfed Association (AGA) join the NSAC as a cosigner, along with the Center for Rural Affairs, the Consumer Federation of America, Consumer Reports, CROPP Cooperative, Food Animal Concerns Trust, National Farmers Union, and the Western Organization of Resource Councils. The AGA was an original supporter of the grass-fed label but withdrew their support in 2006 because that organization believed that the minimum standard should address antibiotics, hormones, and pasture access. Those issues still matter to the AGA, but in cosigning this letter, the organization recognizes how a basic government-backed standard is a necessary first step in the regulatory process.
These eight cosigners cannot restore a comprehensive grass-fed label alone. Organizations that originally supported the label, such as the Land Stewardship Project, Food and Water Watch, Union of Concerned Scientists, Center for Science in the Public Interest, Humane Society of the United States, Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, National Center for Appropriate Technology, and others will need to organize and cooperate toward this shared goal. One, the National Bison Association, signed on after the letter was delivered. Beyond the grass-fed label, a successful sustainable-agriculture coalition could signal renewed efforts on multiple fronts, including Country of Origin Labeling (COOL).
Josh Brewer is an Assistant Editor at MOTHER EARTH NEWS.