On January 12, a federal agency decided to make a move that will make it harder rather that easier for Americans to know what’s in their food or how the food was raised. The issue is the “grass fed” label that had been defined since 2006 by the Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS), which is an organ of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA).
The standard was developed over several years with support from farm and consumer groups, and essentially allowed consumers to know which beef was grass-fed, and which beef was fed with corn. The two types of beef have distinctly different flavors, but apparently two agencies within the USDA could not figure out a way to get along regarding the label.
The reason for the AMS decision to rescind the definition of the grass-fed labels in the federal register said the label “does not facilitate the marketing of agricultural products in a manner that is useful to stakeholders or consumers,” because the Food Safety Inspection Service (FSIS) must approve the labels and “there is no guarantee that an USDA-verified production/marketing claim will be approved by FSIS.”
This move by AMS, which will turn upside-down a system that has been working well, is upsetting to some people, not the least of whom is Ferd Hoefner, policy director for the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition.
“The rationale that a strong USDA label standard for grass-fed beef is not useful because it might not be recognized by a partner agency is outrageous,” said Hoefner. “It is both sad and true that these two USDA agencies often do not coordinate and, worse yet, that in some cases FSIS has looked the other way, allowing particularly unscrupulous meat companies to abuse the USDA standard,” Hoefner said. “But the commonsense solution is not to revoke the standard, but instead to tackle siloing and lack of interagency communication head-on.”
This is, however, yet one more relatively minor development recently in which American consumers are blocked from easily knowing as much information as they might want about their food. In late December 2015, Congress repealed country-of-origin label (COOL) laws, which told consumers where their beef and pork products come from. Americans though that law was a great idea. A poll in 2013 showed 87% of consumers supported COOL.