Producers hungry for a niche may have gotten a boost last week when USDA published its final standards for a naturally raised marketing claim in the Federal Register. The full text of the document outlines the different areas of public concern, including a broad review of the comments received and how the Agricultural Marketing Service interpreted those comments in the new standard.
Those who pushed hardest for a well-defined claim are taking issue with the new standards, however. The text of the new standard does indeed outline a few things missing from the previous (very loose) standard, they say, but does little to close loopholes allowing companies to market the majority of the beef produced in the U.S. as being naturally raised.
The terms “natural” and “naturally raised” have been the source of debate for some time, as producers and consumers have disagreed – often amongst themselves – as to what the terms should mean. Only a vague standard has existed for defining what those terms meant, often pitting the most stringent producers against those who were allowed (under previous law) to label almost any product as being naturally raised.
Beef that is minimally processed, or from cattle which were never fed animal byproducts, has generally been the accepted standard for being natural or naturally raised. The new standard prohibits the use of antibiotics or ionophores, except in cases where ionophores are used to prevent coccidiosis in cattle. Animals which must be treated with antibiotics to keep them healthy must be removed from the naturally raised program.
What the new rules don’t say is perhaps the biggest problem, according to Mark Kastel, senior policy analyst at The Cornucopia Institute.
“It’s a very controversial claim, both in its current configuration – which is basically meaningless – and the newly revised standards which still allow a lot of leeway,” said Kastel. “Some are concerned that it’s an incomplete claim because it doesn’t control certain production practices. It doesn’t refer to animal husbandry practices, environmental impacts, feed rations or anything else.”
Kastel said that many family farmers who try to take advantage of a niche were hoping for something more like the standards used in the National Organic Program, which has strict definitions of production practices and requires frequent inspection.
“The organic program is still the gold standard, because it’s put through a federal certification process and is verified by government and international inspectors,” he said. Referring to the new naturally raised standard, Kastel said, “It’s one thing to put this on paper, and quite another to make sure it’s actually happening.”
Ranchers which participate in branded programs using natural claims will still be likely to do so under the new standard, with little modification to their production practices. It’s this broadly-defined, vague system of requirements that Kastel says has been a huge detriment to ranchers who produce beef at the highest standards as opposed to companies which market beef under an umbrella claim.
“Cynics will say that USDA has partnered with large ag interests to create a smokescreen program that allows them to continue placing ambiguous labels on their products,” he said. “Now we have the standard – which is good – but we also have an overlapping system of labeling standards which is confusing to the customer.”
Organic, grass-fed and naturally raised labeling claims have all become jumbled together, explained Kastel. Very strict guidelines for all claims, along with consumer education, would be needed to truly help consumers understand the difference in what they’re purchasing, something not likely to change with the release of the naturally raised standards as they’re currently written.
“Astute marketers will still have to provide information about their product to differentiate it from products of a lesser standard,” he noted.
Also absent from the text of the new rule is language regarding the origin and production history of purchased cattle.
“What about livestock origin?” asks Kastel. “Can you just go get a calf without knowing its production background and put it into a natural program? It leaves a lot open to interpretation.”
Kastel added that the new standard seems to take beef labeling claims one-step forward, one-step back.
“We’ll still have overlapping claims that are confusing to the consumer,” he said. “The USDA, by creating this label, is really doing a service to those wanting to compete with organic and do it on the cheap.” – Tait Berlier, WLJ Editor