USDA to revise meat labeling guidelines for claims like ‘grass-fed’ or ‘free-range’

(NEW YORK) — The seal of approval from the U.S. Department of Agriculture on meat and poultry you see at the grocery store may soon carry more weight thanks to an update to labeling guidelines for meat producers that will more rigorously verify how animals were raised.

The government agency announced a new multi-step effort on Wednesday for the first time since 2019 in which the Food Safety and Inspection Service will raise the bar on its requirements for producers’ claims about how animals were raised.

Terms that appear on labels such as “grass-fed” and “free-range,” which are voluntary marketing claims, must now be approved by the Food Safety and Inspection Service before being put on a label.

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said consumers should be able to trust what they infer when picking a product with a USDA mark of inspection.

He added that the USDA is taking the new steps “to ensure the integrity of animal-raising claims and level the playing field for producers who are truthfully using these claims, which we know consumers value and rely on to guide their meat and poultry purchasing decisions.”

The agency said in a press release that it has “received several petitions, comments, and letters from a wide range of stakeholders asking the agency to reevaluate its oversight of animal-raising claims, specifically, how they are substantiated.” That also applies to the accuracy of “‘negative’ antibiotics claims” such as “raised without antibiotics” or “no antibiotics ever.”

In partnership with USDA’s Agricultural Research Service, the Food Safety and Inspection Service will start “a sampling project to assess antibiotic residues in cattle destined for the ‘raised without antibiotics’ market,” to help inform whether FSIS should require that laboratory testing results be submitted for that claim or start a new verification sampling program.

The FSIS will also issue a new industry guideline for companies to strengthen any documentation they submit to the agency to further substantiate those animal-raising claims.

The agency said it also plans to “strongly encourage use of third-party certification to verify these claims.”

This action comes on the heels of other efforts from the USDA to protect consumers from false or misleading labels as part of President Joe Biden’s executive order on promoting competition in the American economy.

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