Did the USDA just do away with Grass-fed labeling standards?!

On January 12th, the USDA Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS) withdrew its grass-fed marketing standard.  The agency decided that defining and enforcing marketing standards does not fit within their statutory mandate from Congress.  The standard will remain on their website for reference, but AMS will no longer verify producers adherence to the standard.

The voluntary grass-fed marketing standard went into effect in 2006 and was revised in 2007. It states that livestock marketed as "grass-fed" only consumed forage after weaning and had access to pasture throughout the growing season.  Labeling issues and questions were to be approved by the USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS), the agency that is granted the authority to ensure that meat and poultry labels contain truthful information and are not misleading. In many functional ways, this grass-fed labeling process has not changed. This role of verifying producers adherence to standards has always been in the jurisdiction of  USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS).

Moving forward, producers will need to submit an explanation of their (the producer's) definition of grass-fed in order to use the term on a label; they can borrow language from the AMS standard, but can no longer reference the standard itself.

Where the consumer and industry enthusiasts concern is landing has to do with the "case-by-case" nature of verifying the labeling standard that is being used, but in reality that was already occurring. It's worth noting that producers are able to specify a percentage of grass-fed and not necessarily be required to be 100% grass-fed to use the word "grass-fed." So, if you are a consumer and nervous about what you are getting when you purchase something labeled "grass-fed beef," just make sure your label says 100% grass-fed beef and you'll be all set!

Here's a list of what this change means to producers. It was compiled with information from the American Grassfed Association and the National Farmer's Union:

  • You still have to submit your proposed label with supporting documentation for approval to USDA's FSIS. They review the label and supporting documentation to determine if you can support the claim on your label.
  • You can continue to use the AMS-defined standard until your current AMS certificate expires.
  • You can convert the Grass-fed Marketing Claim Standard into your own standard (which AMS can verify through USDA's Process Verified Program or another USDA-Certified program.
  • You can operate under another recognized grass-fed standard
  • You can develop your own grass-fed standard
  • You can continue to use third-party certifications on your label, such as American Grassfed (AGA)
  • If you have never used the grass-fed claim you may seek gras-sfed label approval from FSIS as long as you provide “documentation about what grass-fed means to you.”
  • If you pasture your cows, but supplement with grain, you can make a grass-fed claim if you spell out the percentage of grass on the label. For example, 90 percent grass-fed, 75 percent grass-fed, 10 percent grass-fed etc. This has always been true, and approval is on a case-by-case basis. However, it is unclear as to how this is enforced.