Usda

The USDA's Abdication of Defining 'Grass-Fed' Is Good For Consumers

The label failed to earn the support of farmers, ranchers, and customers.

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Credit: USDAgov / photo on flickr

Earlier this week, in a surprise move, the Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS), part of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) revoked its approval process for use of its "grass-fed" beef marketing label.

Many supporters of grass-fed beef expressed alarm over the change.

"USDA is revoking a label standard that had widespread farm and consumer support," says Ferd Hoefner of the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition. "Actions such as this take us into a Wild West situation, where anything goes and both farmers and consumers lose."

But Nicolette Hahn Niman, an environmental lawyer and author who's also the wife of celebrated pioneer of grass-fed beef Bill Niman, said the change was unlikely to harm farmers and ranchers who use the method.

"This will probably serve to further erode consumer confidence in the Grassfed label but seems unlikely to harm farmers or ranchers," she says.

The term "grass fed" (as opposed to grain fed) generally refers to meat obtained from cows that were raised, after weaning, on a diet of grass (and other forage, like clover) situated in pasture and, when fresh grass is unavailable, hay. Cows eat grass naturally. But farmers have long known—and most Americans have come to prefer and expect—that cows can eat grains like corn.

In recent years, though, a growing number of Americans have come to prefer pastured beef. As a result, grass-fed beef makes up a small (but growing) percentage of overall beef sales.

The USDA grass-fed standards were established in 2007. But confusion has followed the standards in the years since they were first established. Consequently, it appears that only four grass-fed beef producers around the country used the USDA standard.

In a notice in the Federal Register on Tuesday, the USDA acknowledged the confusion, announcing its grass-fed label "does not facilitate the marketing of agricultural products in a manner that is useful to stakeholders or consumers."

Even in the wake of its announcement, the USDA will still regulate the labeling process for grass-fed beef products (which, like all USDA-regulated food labels, must be approved by the agency before they go to market). It's just that the agency will no longer define the term.

Who will determine what grass fed means? USDA says that the handful of users of its grass-fed label must now do one of three things. First, they can adopt the USDA's existing standard as their own. Second, they can develop their own standard. Or, third, they can rely on an existing grass-fed standard.

That third option refers to private labeling standards.

Private bodies that certify beef as having been raised on grass already exist. They include American Grassfed, the Food Alliance, and Animal Welfare Approved.

Notably, these private certifiers have been among those who pointed out many of the limitations of the USDA standards.

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

The USDA standards failed to guarantee animals would be raised chiefly in pastures—rather than indoors throughout their lifetime, Animal Welfare Approved noted in comments criticizing the USDA grass fed rules in 2009.

The USDA's admission that its now-scuttled rules didn't serve producers or consumers, along with its reference to private standards, is a rare and wonderful occurrence.

Together, these factors represent a victory for consumers, producers, and private certifiers over government standards. Rather than creating a Wild West atmosphere, though—only four producers across the country actually used the USDA label—the USDA's abdication of its role in grass-fed labeling will help bring order to the market.

Private certification already exists, and it works. If a farmer or rancher raises his cattle purely on a diet of grain, I find it difficult to believe a court would uphold his fraudulent use of a grass-fed label.  Furthermore, if a private body were to certify that same farmer as raising grass-fed beef, that certifying body would face the loss of consumer confidence, and might also face litigation from consumers who'd been defrauded by its faulty certification.

That's no Wild West. Rather, it's what I lauded several years ago as the growing success of private labeling. Farmers, ranchers, and consumers should celebrate—not fear—this success.

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19 responses to “The USDA's Abdication of Defining 'Grass-Fed' Is Good For Consumers

  1. The grass fed label is useless, because most grass fed cows are finished on corn to fatten them up, thereby negating most of the benefits of pastured beef. What we need is a “grass finished” label.

    1. Exactly what would those “benefits” be?

      The entire thing, like “organic” is just a marketing campaign to part gullible consumers with their dollars.

      Where I live, raising cattle on a strictly grass-fed diet can approach the inhumane at some times of year. Feeding on grass and hay is actually cheaper, but during cold winters when the temperatures are like they are today for days at a time (right now it’s 13 degrees out with a windchill of -4), I add grain to my cattles’ diet because it’s a concentrated energy source they can use to generate heat without burning too much body fat. Calfs in their early growth months use grain pretty efficiently: you feed them grain in a creep feeder and they put that straight onto their body weight.

      People say they want lean beef, but there are limits. People want juicy, tender beef. Cattle that are using their fat reserves to help heat them through a cold winter aren’t going to be as tender.

      It’s all a balancing act: You want your steers to put on weightt as quickly as possible for as little cost as possible. As much of that as you can do with grass is great, but if you can use grain efficiently to help that along, you are only promoting the health of those steers.

      “Grainfed” used to be something that was promited. “Grassfed” is just a different, faddish label promoted by people raising beef in climates or ranges where grass finishing is economical. There’s no inherent superiority of beef raised on grass.

      1. There is plenty of superiority from a health perspective. You cited several issues with taste, texture, & other matters of consumer preference, as well as climate-based production limitations in certain regions. Those are all valid observations which may well prove that the market can never and will never be 100% grass fed.

        But when you remove all those excuses and view the meat from a standpoint of health, it is a no brainer. Cows were biologically adapted to grass by evolution. That is what their bodies can best digest in order to grow healthy bodies and ultimately result in healthy food for humans.

        You said yourself that eating corn makes them fat. Would anyone agree that a fat animal makes healthier meat? Are fat humans healthier than lean ones?

        I realize a cattle farmer that lives in a cold climate tends to groan and roll his eyes in denial at a relatively new & inconvenient trend of consumer preference. And I realize that this trend will bias market share towards ranchers in California and other areas with superior weather. Sorry, but those are the breaks.

        I don’t know if this “fad” will go away or continue to grow. But as long as people are doing more homework on their food and not less, I cannot imagine folks are going to decide that a fat, unhappy cow who never had any adequate access to pasture or sun is something they want to eat.

  2. If grassfed is important, for the love of dog don’t but the overpriced crap in the grocery store. Find a rancher nearby and buy it by the qtr or half. Works out to better than grainfed store bought by the pound.
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    1. Exactly. We actually go a step farther than that. We buy a cow and pasture it for a month or so before sending it to a processor who we know personally. Of course, living in a rural area gives you an advantage.

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  4. Who will determine what grass fed means? USDA says that the handful of users of its grass-fed label must now do one of three things. First, they can adopt the USDA’s existing standard as their own. Second, they can develop their own standard. Or, third, they can rely on an existing grass-fed standard.

    “it’s like the wild west.” Chaos, I tell ya!

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