It just got harder to buy quality meat

The American Grassfed Association
The American Grassfed Association

I’m attaching, in full, a post from the American Grassfed Association (AGA) at the bottom of this post. First here are my thoughts on this change and what it means for you, the consumer.

Our inspector for the USDA has encouraged me to apply for the grassfed certification, something I assured him I would do. His statement to me was it is so easy to get and I already do all the right things on my farm. I just fill out a form and attest that I only feed grass to my cows. Wait for the faceless government entity to certify that my paperwork is correct and viola! I’m a “grassfed” cattle producer.
There are a couple of things wrong with that though in my opinion.
  1. I don’t even have signs yet for the farm. That means that yes, it is easy to get certified but I have other things that are more important right now.
  2. I meet you all individually and we tour the farm, meet, the animals, and discuss our practices. Our customers are more informed about where their meat comes from than 99.9% of US customers before they take their first bite of our product.
  3. All having the “grassfed” label does for us is to help people who we never meet have some indication of how our animals were raised. Since we pretty much only sell right off the farm, it is rare that a customer hasn’t been here before they cook up one of our products.
But mainly my problem is that I’ve never bought into these labels. They are so easy to corrupt. Organic has many examples of why it isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. Having a grassfed label, where all I had to do was attest on a one page form that my cow was grass fed, with no audit process, just didn’t seem like a label that carried much weight despite the government backing of the label.
Our industry is rife with people and corporations making claims that aren’t true to get a piece of your wallet. As a grassfed producer, I just didn’t see much value in being part of that system and having “grassfed” on my label so despite my promise to get on it, I haven’t even started the process.
Now the below comes out, and it looks like they’ve done away with the extremely low bar to grassfed that was in place. Instead, you simply state that your animals are grassfed based on your own standards of what that means. I’ve told people for years that all cows are grass fed. They look at me quizzically, and I explain that all cows, even feedlot cows, spend a portion of their lives out on pasture eating grass. Then they are boxed up and sent to the feedlots at some point to be fed out on grain. Maybe they are 300 pounds when they go, maybe they are 600 but at some point they were out on grass. If a producer wants to call that grassfed, by and large he could. And now going forward he can even easier because to him, that may mean “grassfed” and that is good enough.
What I tell my customers is that you need to ask if the cows are grass finished. That means they were fed, up till slaughter, grass. However grass finished isn’t a label approved by the government and I doubt you’ll see it anytime soon. It wouldn’t be able to be co-opted so easily and used by big ag to fool you.
So once again, labels don’t mean what you think they mean and you can’t trust the government. That means you need to get to know your farmer and know where your meat comes from.
Here is the text of the email from AGA.
On January 12, USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service rescinded the standards for the grassfed marketing claim. These were the minimal standards behind the grassfed label found on meat sold wholesale or retail. The reasons for the rescission are somewhat unclear, but according to AMS representatives, they have reinterpreted their authority and decided that developing and maintaining marketing standards does not fit within their agency.
Some Background
After a lengthy public process that lasted several years, AMS introduced the grassfed standard in 2006. USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service, the regulatory arm that approves meat labels, was charged with enforcing the standard for those who chose to use it. But because FSIS required no audit or other verification other than a producer-signed affidavit, the term was sometimes misused and was often confusing, both for producers and consumers. The growth of grassfed demand in the marketplace only fueled the misperceptions.
Going forward, FSIS will continue to approve the grassfed label claim, but producers will each define their own standards. FSIS is only considering the feeding protocol in their label approvals — other issues such as confinement; use of antibiotics and hormones; and the source of the animals, meat, and dairy products will be left up to the producer.
So what does this mean?
For Producers
  • For American Grassfed Association Approved Producers, there will be no change. AGA’s standards are more comprehensive and stringent than the AMS standard, and FSIS will continue to accept those standards for the grassfed claim. AGA certified producers may continue using the AGA logo on their meat labels.
  • Non-AGA certified producers using the AMS grassfed standards as the basis for their label claim must update their paperwork with FSIS, but will not have to reapply for label approval. They will have to assert that the standards they use are their own.
  • Producers who have never used the grassfed claim may seek grassfed label approval from FSIS as long as they provide “documentation about what grassfed means to them,” according to Tammie Ballard of FSIS.
  • Producers who feed grain can make a grassfed claim if they spell out the percentage of grass on the label: 90 percent grassfed, 75 percent grassfed, 10 percent grassfed, and so on. Ballard says this has always been true, and approval is on a case-by-case basis. How this is enforced is unclear, however.
  • The Small and Very Small program will continue, and AMS will be in touch with those producers to discuss any changes.
The unfortunate thing for producers who have worked hard to build quality grassfed programs is that, with no common standards in place, they will be competing in the marketplace with the industrial meatpackers who can co-opt the grassfed label.
For Consumers
Once again, consumers lose out on transparency and an understanding of what they’re buying. Grassfed has always been a source of some confusion, but now, with no common standards underpinning it, consumers will find it increasingly difficult to trust the grassfed label. Like other mostly meaningless label terms like natural, cage-free, and free-range, grassfed will become just another feel-good marketing ploy used by the major meatpackers to dupe consumers into buying mass-produced, grain-fed, feedlot meat.
For those who want to buy real grassfed with a label they can trust:
  • Buy from a farmer you know, and ask plenty of questions. Do you supplement with grain or grain by-products such as brewers and distillers grain or by-products from ethanol production? Where do you get your animals? Do you use antibiotics or hormones? Do you feed your animals in confinement?
  • If you don’t have the luxury of knowing your producer personally, then look for the American Grassfed Approved logo. It’s the first and only standard developed by producers, range scientists, veterinarians, animal nutritionists, and other experts that guarantees the meat comes from animals fed a 100-percent forage diet, never confined to a feedlot, never fed antibiotics or hormones, and born and raised on American family farms. No other certification offers those assurances, and no other grassfed program uses true third-party audits to ensure compliance.
  • Avoid buying inexpensive grocery store grassfed. Chances are good that it’s imported– although now that Congress has eliminated County of Origin Labeling, there’s no way to be certain-and the animals were probably confined and supplemented with some form of grain.
  • Avoid buying meat with a grassfed percentage on the label. It’s either grassfed or it’s not. Studies have shown that even a small amount of grain in the animal’s diet affects the nutritional profile of the meat.
American Grassfed Association is the industry pioneer and leader, being the first organization to institute standards that most closely match what consumers want when they buy grassfed. The organization is led by American family farmers who have been in the business for decades, and who understand the unique challenges of producing products from healthy animals that are good for people, good for the planet, and good for rural communities.

If you have questions, please email us at aga@americangrassfed.org

2 Replies to “It just got harder to buy quality meat”

  1. Thanks so much Karen! I’ve always believed that our value is that we know our customers and they know us. We don’t need someone’s label to carry the message for us. There are other label programs I’ve dismissed in the past because they would make us change our practices with no improvement to our animals or our soil. We are going to keep doing it the right way, regardless of the programs, with support from our wonderful customers.

  2. Dan, … I feel like it’s almost like you would be making yourself part of and “buying into” some kind of corrupt process or system by doing this form of “grass feed certification.” We know who YOU are and the word of mouth will get the message out to people who care, so I say screw it. I know it’s you business and not mine, but the other thought is is this some kind of seduction entry onto some slippery slope of a black hole where there will be more requirements, but ones that don’t really mean anything good further down the road? Just my two bits worth.

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