Monday, September 04, 2006

What's in a Label -- The "Grass-fed" Controversy

The media has recently discovered the grass-fed meat controversy with a widely circulated AP story by Libby Quaid, AP Food & Farm writer on September 3, Ranchers Decry Grass-Fed Beef Rule Plan.

Some background to this story is in order. Increasingly, farmers are using production claims on their product labels to distinguish their products in the marketplace. USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service, through its voluntary certification program, attempts to verify the accuracy of some of these claims by setting standards governing the use of USDA verified labels.

While consumers may interpret this responsibility as something that the government does for their benefit, the USDA’s mission to help America's farmers and ranchers is often at issue, and labeling decisions may reflect a balancing of farmer vs. farmer interests. Niche producers want tough rules that distinguish their products. Mainstream producers want lenient rules that allow them to jump on the bandwagon of the latest consumer interest with as little disruption of their traditional practices as possible.

The USDA Grass (Forage) Fed Marketing Claim Standard provides a good example. Grass-fed beef is in big demand. However, while almost all cows start out on pasture as calves, most end up in feed lots for the final months of their life and are fed primarily corn. Grass-fed enthusiasts such as the American Grassfed Association support the use of pasture feeding for the full life of the animal. Traditional cattle producers prefer a flexible standard that would only require some grass, allow other forage, and not require full pasturing.

In May, the USDA published a proposed standard that would require that “grass fed” animals be fed a diet that is mother’s milk or 99 percent grass, legumes and forage. The proposed rule is silent on the pasture issue, and presumably animals could still be raised in feedlots and be considered “grass fed.” Pasture-proponents object to this and to the rule’s broad definition of forage. As of the August 10 deadline for receiving comments, the USDA had received more than 17,000 responses to its proposal.

In a quote in the AP story, William Sessions, associate deputy administrator of the department's livestock and seed program explained his agency’s reluctance to regulate the amount of time that cow spends grazing and raised the issue of weather-stressed pastures . “What we tried to do with this grass-fed claim is make it where anyone in the U.S. that wanted to make this claim could," he said. Perhaps he really didn't mean that exactly the way it sounds . . .

The AP story was picked up by many local papers as well as by the Washington Post, the LA Times, USA Today, and Business Week Online.


Blogger Lori Ringhand said...

Does "grass finished" have any more substantive meaning? Given what consumers are paying for beef displaying these labels, it really would be nice if they meant something....

9/06/2006 8:59 AM  

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