Saturday, December 1, 2007

New grass fed rules

In mid October, the USDA released new rules for labeling grass-fed beef. The timing is indicative of the past decade’s remarkable surge of interest in healthy food. Fueled by increased access through stores such as Whole Foods and interest-generating books such as Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dillemma, the organic business is now worth $17 billion and the Farm Bill is currently instigating, if not a raging debate, at least a buzz of interest. With its grass fed program, the USDA believes it is protecting consumers and aiding producers trying to distinguish themselves from the competition. But like the USDA’s rules on organic certification, the unveiling of the new guidelines was accompanied by a series of salvos from industry and advocacy groups. What exactly is grass fed beef, and what does the debate illuminate about the forces buffeting the industry?

Interest in grass fed beef has intensified as some medical studies have shown omega 3 fatty acids, which occur abundantly in grass but not grain, to reduce risk of heart disease. Some prefer the taste of grass fed beef, while others find it too tangy, leading many producers to “finish” the cattle with grain. This is supposed to improve taste, but it diminishes omega 3 fatty acids. Personally, I am unable to detect the difference—give me a fresh steak, and I will happily polish it off, whether grass or grain fed.

The USDA’s definition of grass fed beef is surprisingly straightforward. To meet the minimum standard for grass fed labeling, a producer must feed his cattle grass or forage for their entire lives, except for milk they consume before weaning. Grain is not allowed as a substitute. Finally, the animal is required to have access to pasture during the growing season.

Simplicity is appealing, and unlike the organic standards, which it developed over twelve years in response to a Congressional directive, the USDA issued them on its own initiative. Unlike the USDA’s rules on organic certification, red tape is essentially non-existent. But therein lies the problem—like so many of the Bush administration’s environmental and health initiatives, grass fed labeling certification is voluntary. A producer who labels his grain fed cattle grass fed faces no penalty. The only way to punish the liars is through consumer activism. Essentially, by shifting responsibility to consumers, the grass fed guidelines take the opposite approach from the organic rules, requiring producers to pay for certification.

Were most cattle producers trustworthy, that should not be great cause for alarm, but a parallel case within the dairy industry shows that many are not. Since 2002, two companies have dominated the dairy sector—Horizon Organics of Boulder, Colorado and Organic Valley of La Farge, Wisconsin. As their headquarters suggest, Organic Valley is much more decentralized—it is a cooperative, in fact—than Horizon, which is corporate. While Organic Valley relies on hundreds of small dairy farms, fulfilling the spirit of organic dairy rules, Horizon confines its cows to enormous feedlots. Its cynical interpretation of the USDA rule obliging “access to pasture” ensures that the only interaction its cows have with the elements is through a small open door. Of course the cows are reluctant to explore beyond the known confines of their pens.

Luckily, through consumer boycotts and an excellent marketing strategy, Organic Valley has held its own against Horizon. Nonetheless, the implications for grass fed beef are serious. Lacking a definition of access in the voluntary guidelines, feed lots will be the prime source of grass fed beef because forage can be brought to confined cattle. No doubt some responsible producers will allow their cattle to roam during the summer, but the big-retailers will favor the cheapest beef. The new USDA label enables corporate agriculture to subvert the public’s obvious desire for cattle that graze freely.

aIn fact, the new label characterizes grass fed so narrowly that it permits giving cows growth hormones and antibiotics. Such flaw is clearly designed for exploitation by feedlots. Without ways to bring cattle to maturity quickly at a minimum risk of disease, they would quickly become obsolete.

The American Grassfed Association (AGA), which has spearheaded criticism of the new guidelines, has announced that it will set up an alternate certification program incorporating standards on growth hormones, antibiotics, and pasture access. Hopefully, as the USDA forfeits its oversight responsibility, consumers will continue to demonstrate commitment to truly healthy cattle and beef by recognizing the more meaningful AGA grass fed label.

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