Animal-raising claims scrutinized by U.S.D.A.

by Jay Sjerven
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Jay Sjerven

The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (F.S.I.S.) on Sept. 30 issued an updated compliance guideline on documentation required to support animal-raising claims that must be submitted before the claims may be used on product labels. Examples of such claims include “raised without antibiotics,” “organic,” “grass-fed,” “free-range, and “raised without the use of hormones,” among others currently in use or that may be used in the future.

The F.S.I.S. previously issued a compliance guideline on animal-raising claims in 2002. The agency said changes from the earlier guideline contained in the new version include definitions for frequently used animal-raising claims, the detailed supporting documentation required for each specific claim that appears on the label, additional information regarding the claim “grass-fed,” information required for duplicating animal-raising claims from purchased products, and examples of labels bearing claims.

The F.S.I.S. guideline indicated for most animal-raising claims, the documentation needed to support these claims includes:

1. A detailed written description explaining the controls used for ensuring that the raising claim is valid from birth to harvest or the period of raising being referenced by the claim.

2. A signed and dated document describing how the animals were raised (for example, vegetarian-fed, raised without antibiotics, grass-fed) to support that the specific claim is truthful and not misleading.

3. A written description of the product-tracing and segregation mechanism from time of slaughter or further processing through packaging and wholesale or retail distribution.

4. A written description for the identification, control and segregation of non-conforming animals or products.

5. If a third party certifies the claim, a current copy of the certificate.

The F.S.I.S.’s special attention to the claim “grass-fed” in the guideline reflected recognition of disappointment and confusion wrought in the wake of the January 2016 decision by the U.S.D.A.’s Agricultural Marketing Service to withdraw its own label standards for grass-fed and naturally raised livestock label claims used in livestock in meat marketing for several years. In announcing that decision, the A.M.S. said it had determined that “certain services” didn’t fit within the agency’s statutory authority, and that the authority to define standards for grass-fed claims labels rightfully fell under the purview of the F.S.I.S.

The F.S.I.S. in the new guideline noted, “Historically, the A.M.S. Grass (Forage) Marketing Claim Standard was considered one form of proof to F.S.I.S. that the claim ‘grass-fed’ was truthful and not misleading.” In that assertion, the F.S.I.S. seemed to confirm the former A.M.S. standard was but one form of proof and may not be decisive in some instances. That was a consideration in the A.M.S. withdrawal of its label standard as “there is no guarantee that the U.S.D.A.-verified production/marketing claim will be approved by F.S.I.S. or the Food and Drug Administration,” the A.M.S. said at the time.

The new F.S.I.S. guideline with regard to the claim “grass-fed” was similar to that formerly employed by the A.M.S.

Ferd Hoefner, policy director, National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, which long championed the A.M.S. grass-fed standard, said, “We are pleased that F.S.I.S. has clarified through this guidance that any label claim using the term ‘grass-fed’ must meet a 100% grass-fed standard.”

Mr. Hoefner added, “The guidance is not perfect, however, and subsequent grass-fed claims will require stringent scrutiny. Even with this new guidance, F.S.I.S. can still approve lesser label claims, such as ‘75% grass fed’ or ‘80% grass fed.’ These claims are misleading for consumers and harmful to the farmers and ranchers who have built their reputations, and, indeed, an entire industry, on the 100% grass-fed standard.”

The F.S.I.S. guideline also addressed how establishments may use purchased products bearing animal-raising claims as ingredients in further-processed meat or poultry products or in cases where product is repackaged. “Establishments may use the purchased product label as documentation to support carrying the same claims over to a new label for the further-processed or repackaged product. Examples of claims that can be carried over include breed claims, diet claims and raising claims,” the F.S.I.S. said.

The agency said in further-processed products in which the meat or poultry is used as an ingredient, the animal-raising claim will need to be preceded by a statement.

“For example, if an establishment making a breaded chicken breast patty nugget purchases chicken breast bearing a ‘raised without antibiotics’ claim, the establishment may carry the claim through to the label of the chicken breast patty nugget in which the chicken breast is used as an ingredient provided the claim is preceded by an appropriate statement, e.g., ‘chicken raised without antibiotics,’” the F.S.I.S. said.

At the same time, the F.S.I.S. said, companies cannot carry over claims from purchased products that are certified by a third-party entity.

“For example, Organic, U.S.D.A. Process Verified Program, or Certified Humane claims cannot be carried forward without the company producing the final product having its own certification or verification,” the agency explained.

For an establishment to include claims from another company’s label, the F.S.I.S. said it requires first, a copy of the complete incoming purchased product label bearing the claims being duplicated or a copy of the prior label approval and label of sourced product, and two, a written description for the identification, control, and segregation of non-conforming animals/product.

The F.S.I.S. sought public comment on the guideline with the comment period beginning on Oct. 5 and extending 60 days. 

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