Around the halls and water coolers of the United States Department of Agriculture, the buzz these days is all about labels.

On one hand, you have the labeling discussion we’ve all heard about: whether to label genetically engineered foods, and if so, how to do so in the most transparent way. That discussion, by all accounts, isn’t going so well for labeling advocates. USDA Sec. Tom Vilsack was unable to create synergy between food companies (who oppose mandatory labeling) and proponents at a secret summit earlier this month.

The labeling news you probably didn’t hear about pertains to the USDA’s grass-fed label. In a statement posted on Jan. 12, the agency quietly announced that its Agricultural Marketing Services department would no longer be issuing and regulating the official “USDA grass-fed” labels, saying they “do not fit within the agency’s statutory authorities” and “it is not in AMS’s role to define [grass-fed] standards.” Grass-fed beef is known to have many health benefits over grain-fed, as it’s leaner and contains a higher percentage of “good” fats.

As we’ve reported before, deciphering the claims on the foods we purchase can be tricky business—especially when regulatory bodies don’t set strict standards for each label. This appears to have been true for the USDA grass-fed standard established in 2007. For instance, the label still allowed livestock to be confined, raised outside of the United States, and fed antibiotics and hormones.

Moving forward, the USDA will still approve and regulate the labeling process for grass-fed beef going to market, but it is removing itself from defining what grass-fed means. Instead, the agency is asking the four—yes, only four—companies currently using the USDA grass-fed label to either adopt the USDA’s current standard as their own, create their own standard, or adopt another existing standard.

Some in sustainable agriculture have said that the USDA’s move will “take us into a Wild West situation, where anything goes and both farmers and consumers lose.” In other words, the USDA grass-fed label may follow the lead of so many other food labels that don’t mean what consumers assume they mean. For sure, this move should make you pause and research the practices of individual companies who use this claim. If information isn’t readily available, reach out and try to dig up your own information.

What’s more, the USDA grass-fed label applied to only a few of the products from just four companies, and there are other private labels for animal health and welfare that more carefully define their standards. Three of the best ones to look for are American Grassfed AssociationFood Alliance Certified, and Animal Welfare Approved—all of which guarantee not only what an animal consumes, but also that it was raised and slaughtered in a humane way.


by Steve Holt

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