USDA revokes grassfed label: What it really means for producers and consumers
January 22, 2016
On Jan. 12, the Sustainable Agriculture Coalition released an article that immediately became the talk of the U.S. grassfed beef community. Titled "USDA Revokes Grass Fed Label Standard," the article said that according to the U.S. Federal Register, the USDA's Agricultural Marketing Service had rescinded the labeling standard for grassfed meat that had gone into effect in 2006.
That sure caught the attention of a lot of grassfed beef producers and branded programs! The article created an uproar, as fear spread that previously approved grassfed labels would be revoked, and that grassfed beef standards no longer existed.
Nothing could be further from the truth. You can still market your meat under a USDA-approved grassfed label. This is more about one USDA agency stepping back a bit from the approval process without really changing the overall results. To set the record straight and help you understand the facts, here is what you need to know:
1. The Grass Fed Beef Standard as developed and published by the USDA-AMS was specifically developed for grassfed beef producers or programs seeking third-party audits and certification through the USDA-AMS Process Verified Programs. PVP's services have been offered for many different types of program claims for many years. It has been, and always will be, a 100 percent voluntary program.
2. All retail label claims are the responsibility of the USDA's Food Safety Inspection Service. All along, anyone with a legitimate USDA-approved grassfed beef label claim had to submit their documenting paperwork to the USDA-FSIS — not USDA-AMS — for approval. Any person or grassfed program with a current USDA-FSIS-approved grassfed label is completely unaffected by the recent announcement. You do not have to resubmit for label approval.
3. The Federal Register announcement states that Congress has not given the AMS any authority to administer grassfed beef label approval. Therefore, grassfed beef producers have been mistaken if they thought participation in the AMS Grass Fed Beef PVP translated into an approved grassfed label. Again, only the USDA-FSIS can approve labels.
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4. At the time of the USDA-AMS announcement, there were only FOUR grassfed programs nationwide participating in the AMS Grass Fed Beef PVP. AMS has never been able to garner much interest in this program. Meanwhile, there are thousands of legitimate USDA-FSIS approved grassfed beef labels.
5. The only real difference is that individuals or programs who want to be audited by the USDA-AMS and be eligible to use the USDA-AMS PVP seal on retail packages now have to submit their own written standards to the AMS. The AMS will provide verification of their grassfed claims through their third-party verification service.
On Jan. 14, Tami Ballard from the USDA-FSIS confirmed that nothing has changed for people who want to submit an application for a Grass Fed Beef label. Applicants must still submit the specific label claims they desire to make on their product(s), and also submit the written documentation supporting those claims. This typically includes a written protocol and standards, along with an affidavit.
It is up to the person or company requesting label approval to explain their definition of grassfed beef. USDA-FSIS uses only the submitted written documentation to determine the claim's legitimacy and in making a decision whether to approve the label application. No auditing is done; there is no follow-up to police adherence to the submitted claims.
The claims do not require someone to be under the USDA-AMS PVP or any other third-party certification. Furthermore, USDA-FSIS has never required that someone submitting an application for grassfed beef label approval cite or point to the USDA-AMS Grass Fed Standard.
Producers can submit an application for either a 100 percent Grass Fed or a "percentage grassfed" label. According to Ballard, a 100 percent Grass Fed label means the animal has never been fed grains or grain byproducts after being weaned from its mother. However, non-grain roughages and byproducts are allowed.
A producer who wants to feed some grain or grain byproducts can apply for a percentage grass fed label that might state, for example, 80 percent grass and 20 precent dried distillers grains. FSIS evaluates animal dietary claims on a case-by-case basis.
What about cheaters? Ballard said that if someone is violating their approved label claims, a formal complaint can be filed with her office. FSIS staff are obligated to investigate. If the program or person is found to be in violation, FSIS would immediately rescind their 100 percent Grass Fed label.
Additional label claims — No Antibiotics, No Hormones Administered, No Animal Byproducts Fed — can be made, but those claims need to be supported by written documentation.
So there is no need to panic. Nothing has really changed. You can go about your business in the grassfed community as always.
My simple advice is to be true to your label claims, and fairly and accurately represent the product to your customer. It is not the job of the USDA to market your product or to police all of the thousands of grassfed programs in the U.S.