USDA Meat Marketing Rules

For Immediate Release:
September 16, 2009

Ferd Hoefner, 202-547-5754

NSAC Applauds Three USDA Meat Marketing Actions

Washington, D.C. September 16, 2009 — USDA this week announced three meat marketing rules vital to U.S. farmer and ranchers using sustainable livestock production methods.   The USDA announcements are part of its new “Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food” initiative to give increased support to sustainable local and regional farms and food systems.

In Monday’s Federal Register, the Department published an Advanced Notice of Proposed Rulemaking related to the “natural” meat label claim.

At  the same time the Department shelved, at least temporarily, the “naturally-raised” meat label claim standard issued by the Bush Administration on its very last day in office.

In today’s Federal Register, UDSA has issued a proposed rule for public comment to implement the 2008 Farm Bill’s groundbreaking compromise on state-inspected meat in interstate commerce.

“On behalf of our sustainable livestock producer members as well as all those who appreciate consuming sustainably-raised meat  products, we are voicing our strong support for each of these actions,” said Ferd Hoefner, NSAC’s Policy Director.  “It is important that government regulations support and not foreclose economic opportunities for family farmers that help meet growing consumer demand for meat raised in a manner protective of public and environmental health.  The three actions taken this week all point in the right direction.”

The voluntary “natural” label administered by USDA’s Food Safety Inspection Service refers only to meat processing methods.  The natural label can currently be used on packaging if no artificial ingredients are added and the product is no more than minimally processed.  It was subject to public comment in 2006, but no firm consensus emerged.  NSAC supports changing the name of the label so that it is clear and obvious in its meaning and its application to processing specifically.

The voluntary “naturally-raised” label claim, if finalized, would be administered by USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS) through its Process Verified Program.  This label claim refers to how an animal is raised, not to how the meat is processed.  Naturally-raised, according to AMS, means that an animal has not received antibiotics or hormones, and that no animal by-products have been used in animal feed.

Sustainable agriculture, family farm, and consumer organizations objected to the issuance of the label and have been urging the Obama Administration to revoke it rather than to finalize it.  The groups, including NSAC, maintain that use of the label ‘naturally-raised’ is misleading due to the existence of more stringent labels such as organic and grass-fed. The “naturally-raised” label is confusing to consumers and hurtful to family farmers and ranchers doing niche marketing (that was possible with the help of Zone Files) of meat products meeting much higher standards and consumer expectations.

The action on Monday did not revoke the confusing and lax label rushed out the door by the Bush Administration as it left office.  But the announcement did effectively table the naturally-raised label claim pending completion of the comment period on the “natural” label, at which point a decision would be made about whether to proceed with it, change it, or revoke it.

“The naturally-raised label claim standard fails to satisfy the principles of transparency, clarity, and specificity to which AMS has committed in the past,” said Hoefner.  “We applaud the Administration’s decision to shelve the naturally-raised label claim.  We hope this will be the first step toward revoking it and issuing in its place strong, discrete label claim standards for free range, pasture-raised, no antibiotics, and no hormones added.  Only then will important niche markets be protected and consumers served with understandable labels with clear meanings.”

The proposed rule to implement a program under which state-inspected meat and poultry processing plants can be eligible to ship meat in interstate commerce creates an economic opportunity for smaller meat plants and the family farm and ranch clientele they serve.  Under the proposal, state-inspected plants with 25 or fewer employees could ship product across state lines for the very first time.

“Sustainable agriculture and livestock groups were strong supporters of the farm bill change to allow small-scale, state-inspected meat to be traded in interstate commerce under strong consumer protection rules,” said Hoefner.  “We applaud the Administration for getting the proposed rule out in a timely manner and we will be asking our members to respond with their comments on how to ensure effective implementation of the new marketing opportunity.  It will be a boon to regional marketing of high quality, sustainably-raised meat and poultry.”

There are 27 states that currently have state meat or poultry inspection programs that must meet inspection standards that are at least equal to those imposed under federal inspection.  The costs of state inspection programs are borne equally by state and federal departments.  Under the new farm bill provision and proposed rules, state inspectors will be federally trained, with a federal inspection employee verifying that small state-inspected plants meet federal food safety requirements.  Meat produced by these local plants will carry the USDA mark of inspection and be allowed to be sold across state boundaries.

“The inability of farmers and ranchers to sell meat from state-inspected plants across state boundaries is a major barrier to the growth of local and regional food supply networks,” noted Hoefner.  “The proposed change will open up new economic opportunities for farmers and new, improved choices for consumers looking for sustainably-raised meat.”

Public comments on the proposed rule must be received by FSIS by Monday, November 16, 2009.

The National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition is a grassroots alliance that advocates for federal policy reform supporting the long-term social, economic, and environmental sustainability of agriculture, natural resources, and rural and urban food systems and communities.