WASHINGTON — The U.S. Department of Agriculture's newly developed grass-fed marketing claim standards are being rejected by the American Grassfed Association, a trade group representing more than 200 grass-fed livestock producers.
The AGA rejected the new USDA standards, which will go into effect Nov. 15, protesting rules that allow confinement of animals and the use of hormones and antibiotics, as well as loosely defined terms, such as “access to pasture.”
“You could have lawsuits surrounding the term ‘access to pasture.’ It leaves the whole gate open to what that really means,” said Patricia Whisnant, president of the AGA and also a producer of grass-fed livestock.
“So you could essentially have a feedlot [where the cattle have] access to pasture, and even though they're held to confinement and fed harvested forage and still fed antibiotics and hormones, [the beef could] still be labeled grass fed. Loose standards leave the door wide open to abuse.”
The USDA standards would require that animals have access to pasture during the growing season, which in some regions could mean from as late as May to as early as October. The animals could then be kept in confinement for long periods, AGA said. The group also complained that the new standards allowed incidental supplementation of the forage diet to ensure the animal's welfare, meaning animals could be fed grain and still marketed as grass fed.
Through this new voluntary standard, livestock producers may request that a grass-fed claim be verified by the USDA through an audit of the production process in accordance with procedures that are contained in the Code of Federal Regulations (7 CFR part 62). The meat sold from these approved programs can carry a claim verified by the USDA. Meat could also be labeled as grass fed — without the seal — if the growers submit documents showing their animals were raised according to the standards.
The standard incorporates the revisions made from comments received from an earlier proposed standard, published reports said, but the AGA said that comments from consumers were ignored.
A grass-roots campaign in 2006 generated over 19,000 comments on an initial draft of the USDA grass-fed standard, primarily from consumers who support more rigorous standards for grass-fed claims, including requirements that animals be raised on pasture as well as prohibitions on hormone and antibiotic treatments.
“The vast majority of those comments [indicated that consumers] felt like the term grass-fed should be applied to animals that are actually raised on pasture,” Whisnant said. Prior regulations would have allowed cattle to be raised entirely on feedlots, but fed harvested forage and still be labeled grass fed, “which we felt was disingenuous,” she added.
It is somewhat surprising that the USDA would place a vague “access to pasture” requirement in these new regulations, observers said. Similar language in the USDA's National Organic Program rules for organic dairies has led to an ongoing, heated debate within the organics industry. And, recently, two small-farm and food activism groups — the Organic Consumers Association and the Cornucopia Institute — filed a multi-state lawsuit against Aurora Organic Dairy, alleging, in part, that the dairy misled consumers by not giving their cows sufficient access to pasture.
For now, the AGA says it will set up its own certification system — using the more rigorous standards they were hoping for — and will partner with Food Alliance, a national nonprofit certification organization, to promote it. Food Alliance will start accepting applications for grass-fed certification later this year, and standards will be posted to www.FoodAlliance.org. Grass-fed meat producers who pass the audit will be able to apply the names and seals of both the American Grassfed Association and Food Alliance.
“We had wanted a stronger standard,” Whisnant said.
“Our standard essentially links what we think of as the four legs of the true grass-fed management that the consumer thinks of — the livestock is fed a grass or forage diet, are not held in confinement, not fed antibiotics, and not fed synthetic hormones. Most of our producers are small family farms that market direct to the consumer, and consequently, we feel like we have a pretty good handle on the relationship between the farm and that consumer.”