A decision this week by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) is about to make meat labeling more confusing for farmers and consumers. On Tuesday, January 12, the USDA Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS) rescinded the labeling standard for grass fed meat, which was developed over the course of four years and finalized in 2006 with the support of national farm and consumer organizations, including NSAC.
The AMS notice appeared in the Federal Register on Tuesday, January 12.
The National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition responded with a press release critical of the decision the same day.
Purportedly the decision to rescind the rule is the result of a new, internal USDA legal decision stating that AMS never had the legal authority to establish the standard in the first place. This ruling comes in spite of the fact that the grass fed label standard was established in 2006, during the Bush Administration, only after four years of rigorous debate between legislators, farmers, and industry leaders as well as several public notice and comment periods. The USDA now claims that this authority, according to the new interpretation, rests solely with USDA’s Food Safety Inspection Service (FSIS).
In the Federal Register notice, AMS states that having a strong, clear, consumer-friendly labeling standard “does not facilitate the marketing of agricultural products in a manner that is useful to stakeholders or consumers” because a different USDA agency, FSIS, must be the one to approve meat labels and that “there is no guarantee that an USDA-verified production/marketing claim will be approved by FSIS.”
This ruling by USDA effectively suggests that a well-received, strong USDA label standard is not useful because a partner agency may choose not to recognize the label standard. Instead of insisting that agencies work toward consensus for the greater good, USDA has created a vacuum wherein consumers and ranchers/producers have no uniform standard to guide them.
Instead of throwing out a label standard with widespread support and trust, USDA should insist that AMS and FSIS work together to create and enforce uniform and useful standards. If the justification that AMS does not have the authority to issue the standard is accurate, then FSIS should have adopted and issued the existing AMS standard as its own, simultaneous with AMS’ revocation.
Because the revocation has taken place without simultaneous adoption of the existing standard by FSIS, farmers and meat companies who have been using the USDA grass fed label now have 30 days to either convert the label claim into an existing private grass-fed standard, or develop a new grass fed standard of their own.
NSAC would encourage those affected to take the first option. By developing new, non-uniform standards the term “grass fed” will begin to lose it’s meaning and eventually become useless to consumers. This in turn would severely harm the market for true grass fed meat providers who have followed the more rigorous standard for years.
NSAC member groups, including the Center for Rural Affairs, Land Stewardship Project, Organic Valley, Food Animal Concerns Trust, among others, fought for the creation of the original grass fed label claim and even sponsored farmers to fly to Washington to participate in the process–a process that also included meat companies, consumer groups, and animal welfare organizations.
The now-revoked standard stated among other things that grass, forbs, and forage needed to be 99 percent or more of the energy source for the lifetime of a ruminant species after weaning in order to qualify as grass fed. Prior to the setting of that standard, grain fed animals were often sold as grass fed with full USDA approval.
And just when it seemed like it couldn’t be any worse–right now in the formal list of pending rulemakings for the final year of the Obama Administration there is a proposed rulemaking from FSIS on the creation of a “natural” meat label. It is currently listed for publication in April of this year, though dates often change. We are watching this closely and are confident that any attempt to use that rulemaking to create a naturally raised label will be met with loud opposition from farm and consumer interests.
NSAC is working with our allies to determine the best path forward. Stay tuned for additional opportunities to weigh in on possible solutions in the coming weeks. In the meantime:
If you are an affected farmer/rancher/producer, tell AMS you want to stick with the existing grass fed label standard: Contact David Bowden, Jr. Chief, Standardization Branch, Quality Assessment Division; Livestock, Poultry, and Seed Program; Agricultural Marketing Service, USDA, Room 2096-S, STOP 0249, 1400 Independence Avenue, SW; Washington, D.C. 20250-0249, firstname.lastname@example.org, 202/720-5705. You might also want to call into the AMS conference call to discuss your options and raise your questions and concerns –
Date: Thursday, January 14, 2016 Time: 11am, EST Conference Number: 888-844-9904 Passcode: 2887241
If you are a concerned farmer/consumer/citizen, let FSIS know they should adopt and strictly enforce the now revoked AMS grass fed standard by sending an email to email@example.com. In addition, please watch this space for detailed information about petitioning FSIS to adopt and strictly enforce the now revoked AMS grass fed standard.