Individuals and animal activists’ organizations were swarming the government comment site, yesterday over proposed new guidelines about labeling claims made about how animals are raised.

Monday was the deadline for comments on the new labeling guidelines that were rolled out last September. The guidelines require supporting documentation when submitting labels and how to modify them. Further, the guidelines provide for a speedy way to add additional suppliers to a label.

USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) has the responsibility for seeing that meat and poultry labeling is truthful and not misleading. For the past 25 years, FSIS evaluated animal raising claims by considering information submitted with label approval requests.

The new guidelines are intended to respond to more numerous requests being submitted to the Labeling Program and Delivery Staff (LPDS) through phone calls, askFSIS website questions, and other correspondence asking about the type of information required for approval of labels that include claims about how animals are raised.

youngfarmerwithdalves_406x250About 4,600 comments were turned in by yesterday’s deadline. Animal activist groups, including the Animal Legal Defense Fund, People for Ethical Treatment of Animals, and Compassion Over Killing, were among those lodging  complaints about the new guidelines.

The animal activist groups contend the new guidelines with effectively render “any and all animal raising claims meaningless.” They say the guidelines allow “producers that use standard, industrial production methods to make ‘humane’ or ‘animal friendly’ claims, while hindering producers that have actually instituted standards that come closer to satisfying consumer expectations and likely misleading the large percentage of conscientious consumers who are willing to pay extra for products they believe are raised more humanely.”

“The USDA’s approach blatantly violates its statutory duty to protect consumers,” says ALDF’s Executive Director Stephen Wells. “The Animal Legal Defense Fund urges the agency to take stops that genuinely ensure animal products’ and by products’ labels clarify and inform purchases, not mislead the public.”

Jared Goodman, PETA Foundation director of animal law, goes even further.

“Without any authority to go onto farms for itself to see how animals are being treated,” he wrote, “the USDA has all but guaranteed that it will continue to approve ‘humane’ labels where portions of birds’ beaks and pig tails are cut off and animals live their entire lives indoors without enrichment before being roughly rounded up and loaded on to a truck for terrifying transportation to a violent death.”

The North American Meat Institute also commented on deadline day, saying it “supports the concepts articulated in the guidelines.”

“NAMI is also aware the agency is taking steps to facilitate the review of labels requiring approval by FSIS, “ wrote Mark Dopp, senior vice president of regulatory and scientific affairs, and general counsel. “NAMI encourages the agency to act as expeditiously as possible to implement those changes to enable companies to make claims such as those addressed in the guideline. To assist that effort, the Meat Institute is available to work with the agency to facilitate educational and other efforts to reduce the label approval backlog.”

Comments collected by the agency included many that appear to be form letters to Dan Engeljohn, one of FSIS’s top administrators. All those letters begin this way:

“Dear Dr. Engeljohn,

“I am pleased to see that the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service is updating its label approval process. However, I am dismayed that the new animal raising claims guidance (Docket No. FSIS-2016-0021) does not address several concerns that have been brought to your attention.”

Many of those letters go on to ask for some specific changes in the guidelines, including:

  • Require third-party certification for animal welfare and environmental stewardship claims. In several surveys, large majorities of consumers have said that a “humanely raised” claim should not be allowed on products unless verified by an independent third party. Consumers also believe that the claim should not be used unless producers exceed minimum industry standards.
  • Define animal living claims, such as “free range” and “pasture raised.” Producers should only be allowed to use these claims if they meet established standards, including minimum space allowances and access to vegetation for animals.
  • Prohibit the use of feedlots for the “grass-fed” claim. Producers are only required to provide grass-fed animals with access to pasture for the growing season. When not on pasture, producers can keep animals in barren, cramped feedlots.
  • Require more documentation to substantiate claims. When third-party certification is not required, producers using animal raising claims should submit a detailed animal care protocol and photographic documentation.

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