Keepin’ it natural: Urgent action on meat labels

On a recent trip to the grocery store, a friend of mine living in the Midwest decided to put in a plug for grass-fed beef. They won’t supply it if we don’t ask for it, right? She approached the man behind the meat counter and asked if they carried it. With a completely straight face, he responded: "Grass-fed? Honey, I don’t think cows can eat grass. It hurts their stomachs. Cows eat corn. We have lots of good Iowa corn-fed beef here!"

We probably don’t need another reminder of just how far our meat production system has roamed from what’s natural. The scary thing is that as a society, we’re getting used to it — to the point where we no longer know what a naturally-raised animal is supposed to look like.

Unless we act before March 3, the USDA is about to make this confusion even worse.

What’s the beef?
Last fall, USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service proposed a new standard for producers who want to put a "naturally raised" label on their products. Their proposal: livestock must have been raised without growth promotants, antibiotics, or mammalian or avian byproducts in their feed.

Grass? Nah.

Access to the outdoors? Nah.

Natural breeding instead of artificial insemination? Nah.

Treating animals humanely? Nah.

Making sure that the operation doesn’t spew toxic gases into the air or leach manure into rivers, streams, or groundwater? Nah.

If the USDA’s proposal goes through, consumers looking to do the right thing at the grocery store will see a label that tells them the meat they’re buying has been raised naturally. But in the words of Inigo Montoya from the Princess Bride, "I do not think that means what you think it means." 

A weak "natural" label will also undermine other more meaningful labels like organic and grassfed by making consumers think that they’re buying something comparable when they buy "naturally raised." Wouldn’t a "no hormones or antibiotics used" label be more clear and more honest?

Taking the natural step
We can do something about this, but we have to do it quickly. The USDA is taking comments on their proposal through Monday, March 3. So this weekend, please take a few minutes to let them know that consumers deserve labels that are clear and meaningful. It’s easy to submit comments online. And in case you were worried, it does make a difference: in 1997, the USDA floated a proposal for an Organic label that allowed irradiation, GMOs, and sewage sludge in organic production. The agency received  more than 275,000 public comments and reversed its stance on all three issues. 

Below the fold, you’ll find instructions on how to submit a comment (I promise it’s really easy!) and talking points from the Sustainable Agriculture Coalition that you can fold into your letter to USDA. This weekend is our last chance to influence a label that will guide consumers’ choices in the grocery store; let’s make sure the signals are clear.

Thanks to the Sustainable Agriculture Coalition and the Organic Farming Research Foundation for the following information. Let’s do it!

Please submit comments opposing USDA’s proposal by Monday, March 3rd, 2008. You can submit comments two ways:

1. Electronically – submit your comments online at the following link: main=SubmitComment&o=09000064803b3e50.

2. Via fax to 202-720-1112.

Important: All comments must reference "Docket No. AMS-LS-07-0131".

Also: Be sure to include your name, address, and if appropriate, affiliation(s) and/or interest(s) in the issue.

Remember: The public comment deadline is March 3, 2008.

Talking Points

  • The proposed "naturally raised" standard fails to address many of the high standards consumers expect from sustainable livestock production, including animal welfare, access to pasture, and conservation and environmental requirements. Quite simply, the "naturally raised" label as proposed would not mean what consumers would think it implies and should be abandoned.
  • With its less than comprehensive definition of "naturally raised" and seemingly similar relationship to other labels, the proposed label would confuse consumers. It could also undermine the consumer confidence in all other label claims, including the well-established and trusted "certified organic" label which numerous producers have built their respective businesses around.
  • The naturally raised label claim would completely defeat a very important purpose of providing the label in the first place – to provide clear and reliable signals to consumers who want to make informed, environmentally-friendly, and healthy choices about their food purchases.
  • The implementation of a "naturally raised" claim would further mislead consumers who are already uncertain and skeptical about the meaning of the "natural" label claim currently overseen by USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS). The natural claim refers to processing of meat whereas the naturally raised claim refers to the production of livestock. The implementation of two distinct claims, both using the term "natural" yet addressing completely distinct issues and administered by two separate agencies will create confusion for consumers and farmers alike.
  • Hormone and antibiotic supplementation and the use of animal byproducts as a feed source are extremely important issues that could be succinctly and accurately addressed through individual labeling claim standards. USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service had previously proposed the development of "no antibiotics used" and "no supplemental hormones used" labels, both of which would provide clear and reliable signals to consumers. This approach would provide consumers with clear, reliable signals that will allow them the opportunity to make informed decisions about what they are purchasing, while sustaining their confidence in the integrity of all USDA process-verified labels.

4 Responsesto “Keepin’ it natural: Urgent action on meat labels”

  1. Jen says:

    done– the comment submission process WAS very easy.

    I actually encountered this the other day at a butcher shop — I asked the butcher, ‘where does your beef come from’? He answered ‘It is all natural, and comes from the midwest’. I then asked what ‘natural’ actually means, and basically got an answer that conforms to these proposed labeling standards — the animals are not treated with hormones or antibiotics for the last 6 months of their lives (so that there’s time to ‘work their way out of their systems’)… not exactly the response I was hoping for.

  2. Marta says:

    Thank you for the heads up! My comments is submitted as well. In our family, we only eat “happy meat!” Hey, now there’s an idea for a label . . .

  3. Expert1 says:

    One thing for sure, the USDA’s primary focus is to protect BIG BUSINESS. They are trying in everyway to confuse the consumer. I hope we can make a difference. I am alerting all friends and family to also write. But isn’t a shame that we even have to do this?

    A 5th grader would be more honest and upfront if they were writing the guidlines. The USDA has NO integrity.

  4. hugh betcha says:

    if you block cookies you cannot post a comment, i would have posted this:

    99% of people couldn’t consider industrial mega-food production (cause it sure isn’t animal husbandry) natural, no matter what it was labeled. the vail of a USDA label is only effective to the uninformed masses. but slowly the masses are opening their eyes and looking at their “food” being served-up with gov’t seals of approval.

    make rules that let me, the little farmer who actually knows each of my animals personally call my beef what it is, mine are hand fed, perhaps the mega-producers could stick a robot arm on the cattle pen that flung corn and call theirs hand fed also? i don’t know… with you guys making the rules and all…

    it might take a backbone but please work toward doing the right thing here.

    hugh betcha