Is Grass-Fed Beef Disappearing for Good?

Is Grass-Fed Beef Disappearing for Good?

On January 12th, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS) rescinded the USDA labeling standard for grass-fed meat. The label had been developed over the course of four years and was finalized in 2006.

The decision to revoke the standard stems from an internal USDA ruling, stating that AMS never had the legal authority to establish the standard in the first place, as this authority was solely in the purview of a different USDA agency, FSIS.

“Because AMS does not have express authority to define grass-fed or naturally raised, it is inappropriate for the agency to offer it as an AMS-defined marketing claim,” the agency said.

The AMS notice to this effect appeared in the Federal Register on the 12th, stating that the standard “does not facilitate the marketing of agricultural products in a manner that is useful to stakeholders or consumers,” as “there is no guarantee that an USDA-verified production/marketing claim will be approved by FSIS.”

“Meat labeling just became even more confusing for farmers and consumers,”said Ferd Hoefner, Policy Director for the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, one of the organizations that helped finalize the label. “The rationale that a strong USDA label standard for grass-fed beef is not useful because it might not be recognized by a partner agency is outrageous.” He suggested that in the face of discrepancies between the two agencies, the appropriate solution would be to tackle this lack of interagency communication, not bow to it.

But Nicolette Hahn Niman, an environmental lawyer and author, as well as the wife of grass-fed beef pioneer Bill Niman, said on Facebook that the change was unlikely to cause too many problems for farmers. “This will probably serve to further erode consumer confidence in the Grassfed label, but seems unlikely to harm farmers or ranchers,” she wrote.

Indeed, the USDA Grassfed label was not the only or even the best grass-fed label available to producers; private grass-fed certifications have been developed by American Grassfed, the Food Alliance, and Animal Welfare Approved, some of which are stricter than the USDA label was.

“The USDA definition does a good job of defining what grassfed animals can and cannot be fed,” wrote a statement from the Food Alliance. “But it does not deal with other issues consumers care about – like the use of hormones and antibiotics, confinement of animals, and environmental stewardship.”

Because FSIS did not simultaneously adopt the former USDA grass-fed standards, producers can now either become certified by a private grass-fed label or develop a new standard. Though it will no longer define the label, the USDA intends to continue to approve the labeling process for grass-fed beef products, AMS’s Sam Jones-Ellard told On Pasture. “FSIS will still approve grass-fed labels like they always have, and AMS will still verify grass-fed claims through our suite of third-party verification services,” he said.

The 2006 USDA standard stated that to qualify as grass-fed, grass, forbs, and forage needed to make up 99 percent or more of the diet of a ruminant after weaning. Ruminants have evolved to digest grasses; corn- and grain-fed beef makes for both a less efficient and sustainable meat industry and for less healthful meat.

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Grazing cows image via Shutterstock

Emily Monaco
Emily Monaco

Emily Monaco is an American food and culture writer based in Paris. She loves uncovering the stories behind ingredients and exposing the face of our food system, so that consumers can make educated choices. Her work has been published in the Wall Street Journal, Vice Munchies, and Serious Eats.