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.

2/24/2016 9:02:26 AM

I look for these labels. I find them helpful in guiding me to the better meat. Unfortunately government is putting their noses in, spending tax dollars on something that is already working. I remember the days of the old corner butcher, who could tell me everything about what his beef had, now that stores are large corporations, if you ask the butcher he has no clue. Government may think they are making it better, but ultimately they are making it worse. I believe that both the cool program and the grass fed program are working well. Don't change it. Otherwise it's back to the Amish for my meat again, at least they know what they feed their animals! Shame to have to drive 60 miles just to get meat but I am willing to do it again if this government doesn't stop playing around with my food AND my tax dollars. It is important what I feed my family, and the larger corporations do not know diddly about their meat. So mr government back off. When things are working like labeling of grass fed, or cool. Find something more important like all the processors that are not code compliant.

2/5/2016 4:33:19 PM

Ferd, Thank you for taking the time to respond to this post and for all the work you’ve done for sustainable agriculture policy. You are absolutely correct to recognize the coalition that supported the original label, and I would also like to thank the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC) and the role it played in constituency building and coordination. Admittedly, my optimism regarding the label loss reflects my privileged position outside the fray. When I saw that the USDA had revoked the grass-fed label, from your press release, I was confused and a bit dismayed, but had not invested over a decade into the process—only to see it swept away. However, I hope that you find my positions valuable, if “wishful,” because of that distance. As an editor for a positive, sustainable lifestyle magazine, I fundamentally believe in a progressive “long game,” throughout which we’ll have setbacks and surprisingly rapid advances. It’s heartening to know that this is the NSAC’s position as well, as a policy advocacy alliance. I believe that with ample pressure from your organization, and others like it, and from the downright determined readers of publications like MOTHER EARTH NEWS, we can secure Country of Origin Labeling (COOL), Genetically Modified Organism labeling, and a more comprehensive grass-fed label that directly addresses non-therapeutic antibiotic application, environmental impacts of production, and animal welfare concerns such as regular access to open space. Again, thank you for your time and your advocacy for sustainable agriculture. Josh Brewer MOTHER EARTH NEWS

1/30/2016 11:47:55 AM

Couldn't agree more that standards should be reinstated, but calling the revocation of the existing grass fed standard a minor setback may be a bit of wishful thinking unless the sustainable farm and food community acts in an organized way. For a bit of historical reference, the recently revoked standard was the result of two years of negotiations between USDA and advocates, and the final result was supported by many groups, including among others, Food Animal Concerns Trust, Land Stewardship Project, National Bison Association, Center for Rural Affairs, Consumers Union, National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, Food and Water Watch, Union of Concerned Scientists, Center for Science in the Public Interest, Humane Society of the US, Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, National Center for Appropriate Technology, and, originally, American Grassfed Association, although AGA subsequently withdrew their support. It is also important to note that the aforementioned negotiations also dealt with antibiotic, hormone, and pasture access claims, though, unlike grass fed, those were not finalized and the incoming Obama Administration (2009) decided to drop them and not pursue them to completion. It is also relevant to note that from 2002 until just last year, USDA and the White House Office of Management and Budget considered the grass fed standard to be legal. I might suggest that the change of heart is more a political concern than a legal one. Long story short, we intend to keep the pressure on! It is not too late (though in 11 months it will be) for this Administration to do the right thing! - Ferd Hoefner, National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition

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