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Can the beef industry have its grass and eat it too? It depends on whom you ask. Last month, the U.S. Department of Agriculture released an updated version of marketing standards for grass-fed meat. The agency tightened up the previous definition, dating from 2002, but critics complain that the new version stills falls woefully short of what's required for a truly meaningful label. The American Grassfed

Can the beef industry have its grass and eat it too?

It depends on whom you ask. Last month, the U.S. Department of Agriculture released an updated version of marketing standards for grass-fed meat. The agency tightened up the previous definition, dating from 2002, but critics complain that the new version stills falls woefully short of what's required for a truly meaningful label. The American Grassfed Association was so disappointed that its members decided to launch their own certification program.

“If you say ‘grass-fed’ to a consumer, they see an animal on pasture; they envision an animal that hasn't been fed antibiotics and hormones,” said Carrie Balkcom, the group's executive director. “That's not the way the USDA wrote the claim.”

The new rules stipulate that animals must be allowed continuous access to pasture during the growing season, and fed a 100% forage diet after weaning. No one is arguing there. What the AGA objects to are provisions stating that producers can still confine animals for significant periods of time — and use antibiotics and hormones.

There are those who believe that the association is being impractical. Traci Bruckner, assistant director of rural policy for the Center for Rural Affairs, which worked with the USDA's Agriculture Marketing Service in developing the new standards, recalls government regulators saying from the outset that the definition of “grass-fed” would be narrow, that separate labels already exist to support ancillary claims like hormone and antibiotic use.

“You can't let ‘perfect’ be the enemy of ‘good,’” she said. “This is a 100% improvement over where we started, and I think we need to call it a victory and let it be what it is.”

The new rule went into effect Nov. 15, and retailers may soon be seeing not one but two labels, both claiming the product is grass-fed beef. And technically, both will be right. Consumers will be the ones ultimately to decide just how far the definition should extend.