Jan 29, 2016 12:00:00 AM
Been relying on the USDA to make sure your beef, milk, yogurt, cheese, or butter is the real deal? Now there's no need to bother.
By: MARYGRACE TAYLOR
Earlier this month, the USDA decided to revoke the labeling standards that have beenin place for grass-fed meat and dairy products for the past decade. Weirdly, the USDA's Agricultural Marketing Service—which is responsible for developing quality standards for commodity foods (like meat, produce, and dairy)—essentially decided that "grass-fed" is a marketing claim. And determining whether such claims are legit for specific products isn't their job. So they stopped.
But it gets more bizarre, because grass-fed labeling itself isn't actually going anywhere. "There will still be a grass-fed label, there just won't be any standards underpinning it," says Marliyn Noble, Communications Director for the American Grassfed Association. "Now, producers can do whatever they want." In other words, the USDA still has to regulate grass-fed foods. They just won't define what "grass-fed" actually means beyond an animal having been fed grass at some point in its life. (Check out these other food labels and their meanings.)
Yeah, it's a total mindf*@^. Except the grass-fed standards that plenty of clean eaters have trusted for all these years might have been less comprehensive than you thought. For instance, they didn't say anything about not giving animals hormones or antibiotics. They didn't say that cattle needed to eat fresh grass, either—hay was perfectly fine. They also didn't say anything about animal welfare standards beyond cattle needing access to pasture at least once in a while. So while you may have assumed that your grass-fed beef came from a cow that spent its days grazing happily in an open field, it might've actually spent most of its time confined in a pen munching on hay.
Put another way, if you wanted meat or dairy products that were truly clean and produced in an ethical way, you needed to dig beyond the government by learning more about a farmer's methods or looking for a stricter third-party verification. And now that the USDA's grass-fed labeling standards have vanished, you'll still need to do the same thing.
But that might not be the case forever. The AMS has asked grass-fed meat and dairy producers to come up with their own standards that can be audited and verified by the agency. But since farmers didn't see this change coming, it might be a while before they're able to come up with a set of comprehensive guidelines, Noble says. (Here are 5 ways to make red meat healthy.)
In the meantime, you can still find grass-fed meat and dairy by looking for products certified by the American Grassfed Association. That guarantees animals (cattle, buffalo, goats, lamb, and sheep) have only been fed grass and forage, that they weren't raised in confinement or feedlots, that they were never given antibiotics or hormones, and that they were born and raised in the U.S.
And if you can't find any AGA-certified products in your local supermarket, head to the farmers' market or to a local ranch. "Ask a lot of questions—like do you feed the animals grain? Do you give them antibiotics? Are the animals on pasture year-round?" Noble says. Because when you're paying a pretty penny for grass-fed foods, you have the right to go home with grass-fed foods.
This article originally published on Eat Clean.