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USDA Revokes Grassfed Label Standard – NOT!

By   /  January 18, 2016  /  6 Comments

Sometimes headlines are misleading as they were when we were told last week that Grassfed labeling was being revoked in the U.S. Here’s what’s really going on.

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NSAC Scary Headline

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.

She continued with this information:
Grassfeddefinition• Specifically for grass fed labeling, producers or companies making a 100% Grass Fed claims on their meat and meat product labels should be fed Grass (Forage) Fed 100% after being weaned from their mother’s milk. This has always been the requirement, and is not impacted by AMS’ withdrawal of the marketing claim standard.
• As always, companies/producer(s) will have to show ownership by explaining their definition of grassfed in documentation submitted to FSIS Labeling for prior label approval.
• The claim does not require companies/producers to be under an AMS Process Verified Program or any other third party certifying entity, nor were persons applying to use a grassfed label required to point to the AMS standard that has now been withdrawn. FSIShas never required this.

• 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.)

• Diet claims are evaluated on a case-by-case basis by the Labeling and Program Delivery Staff (LPDS) of FSIS. Producers/processors would need to submit a signed affidavit (letter) declaring the specifics of the production claim, and a detailed written explanation on how the animals are raised from birth to slaughter, the product control and segregation mechanism, and an explanation/formulation of the diet (including how/what the animals
are fed during long periods of severe weather).
• FSIS has not made any modifications to this process.
• The only individuals who will see a change are those applicants with approved labels that reference the AMS Grass Fed Standard in their supporting documentation. If your approved label references the AMS Grass Fed standard, you will have to update your supporting documentation to reflect the new standard that you are adhering to. You may use the language in the now-rescinded AMS standard if you like. This will have to be made available to the local FSIS inspector. You do not have to submit for re-approval unless you are adopting a new standard which changes your label claim

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.

natglc-logo-1Thanks to the National Grazing Lands Coalition for making this article possible. Click on over to see the great work they do for all of us. Thank them for supporting On Pasture by liking their facebook page.

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About the author

Publisher, Editor and Author

Kathy worked with the Bureau of Land Management for 12 years before founding Livestock for Landscapes in 2004. Her twelve years at the agency allowed her to pursue her goal of helping communities find ways to live profitably AND sustainably in their environment. She has been researching and working with livestock as a land management tool for over a decade. When she's not helping farmers, ranchers and land managers on-site, she writes articles, and books, and edits videos to help others turn their livestock into landscape managers.


  1. Eric says:

    Very interesting. Thank you for being concise in your explanation. I was certainly indignant when reading the headline and like most opaque situations there was a logical explanation. The downside is I will have to put down my pitchfork and torch until the next incendiary headline. Thank you!

    • Rachel Gilker says:

      Thanks, Eric. That’s why we like the easy-on/easy-off torches. Makes for better hot-headed rabble rousing!
      Rachel and Kathy

  2. Richard Moyer says:

    How much soybean hull pellets, citrus peels, beet pulp, etc can be fed, and still claim 100% grass-fed? How much molasses, molasses-protein blocks, etc. Can you link me to any info helping sort this out; FSIS or otherwise?

    I have customers who seek out 100% grass-fed, assuming that means diet the whole life was mother’s milk and forages. Also assuming that “grass-fed” means non-GMO feed for a lifetime.

    Here in the fescue belt/mid-Atlantic, it’s possible to graze year round, w/ hay as needed, so “grass-finished” typically means hay and forage alone. Though some producers do supplement in winter.


    • Kathy Voth says:

      Hi Richard,

      Give us a bit. We will work on that and get back to you and everyone, probably with an article. Is that allright?


      • Farmer Eric says:

        With the release of GMO alfalfa, it is a poor assumption that grass-fed is non-GMO.

      • Diana Dyer says:

        In your future article, please also comment on the practice of feeding spent grain from local beer brewers within the definition of “grass-fed”. Thank you.

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