Pretty scary headline, huh! Fortunately it’s not a real problem.
After a decade as a Public Information Officer for the Bureau of Land Management, I have a little bit different view of headlines and press releases and how they’re written to grab attention. Since fear is one of our strongest emotions and motivators, the press and press release writers often press that button to get us to read something or to motivate us to support them. That’s why, whenever I read a headline that makes me feel like saying, “OMG! THAT’S HORRIBLE/STUPID/DOESN’T MAKE SENSE!” I do a little more investigation to find out if we’re just being manipulated.
So, minutes after reading this headline while laying in bed at 10:00 p.m. on the 12th, I looked up the Federal Register Announcement from the USDA’s Agriculture Marketing Service. In the legalese that is commonly used in Federal Register Notices, I read that the AMS had looked at what they are allowed to do by law and determined that Congress hadn’t given them the authority to administer grassfed labeling. Instead, this falls under the jurisdiction of the Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS). Translated that means that a grass fed producer who thought that working with the AMS was all s/he had to do to get grass fed labeling would be pretty frustrated when they had to fill out more paperwork to get that labeling approved by the proper authority.
As a former government employee who’s been around the block with this kind of thing, I could see why AMS was saying what they were saying. But I thought it would be easier to understand if I talked to someone at AMS with the scoop on what was happening. So on the 13th I made a few calls and ended up speaking to AMS’s Sam Jones-Ellard. As Sam explained, producers and consumers should see no effect from this change. “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 only difference is that AMS is not maintaining this voluntary standard.
He explained that things will continue to work the way they have always worked and Tami Ballard of FSIS reiterated that in the next day’s phone call:
FSIS has always allowed companies to make marketing animal raising claims (for example,Grass Fed) based on the documentation supplied with the label application. Nothing has changed.
• As a matter of policy, FSIS does not restrict companies to only being 100% Grass Fed. FSIS will also allow companies to make other diet and grass fed percentage claims (for example, on documentation supplied with the label application.)
Sam Jones-Ellard also noted that if you’re a smaller producer of grass fed products, the AMS is still supporting their “Grass fed Small & Very Small Producer Program.” This program is designed to create opportunities for producers who market 49 cattle or less each year or lambs produced from 99 ewes or less. If you weren’t aware of it, check it out.
So, crisis averted!
Nothing has changed except that maybe, like me, you’ll be a little more wary next time you read a headline that raises your blood pressure. In fact, if it helps, you’re more than welcome to send those kinds of headlines to me (as long as they’re On Pasture related) and I’ll do a little background investigation. Then I’ll let the whole On Pasture Community know if we need to worry, or we can just relax.
P.S. Sam Jones-Ellard really emphasized that AMS is very supportive of grass fed producers and he’s even got his own grass-based flock of chickens. He says they’re not so happy now that there’s snow on the ground where he lives in Indiana, so, like the rest of us, he’s looking forward to Spring when they can get back on green grass.