The USDA has announced that animal-raising claims in the future must be justified. While not specific, the action responds to some recent petitions received by USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS).

Animal-raising claims often come up in petitions to FSIS for policy changes.

his year, Perdue Farms filed a petition requesting that FSIS conduct rulemaking to define separate “free range” and “pasture-raised” claims for meat and poultry products. Perdue’s petition also requests that FSIS update its guidance on claims related to living/raising conditions to ensure that the claims align with consumer expectations.

Also this year, the Environmental Working Group (EWG) petitioned to prohibit the recently approved “Low-Carbon Beef” claim and require third-party verification for similar carbon claims. The EWG also wants numerical on-pack carbon disclosures included whenever such claims are made.

In an announcement made by the Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack, USDA said it was implementing a multi-step effort aimed at strengthening the substantiation of animal-raising claims. How that is going to happen is not entirely clear.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture said the action will build on the “significant work” USDA has already undertaken to protect consumers from false and misleading labels and to implement White House economic policy.

“Consumers should be able to trust that the label claims they see on products bearing the USDA mark of inspection are truthful and accurate,” said Vilsack. “USDA is taking action today 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.”

Animal-raising claims, such as “grass-fed” and “free-range,” are voluntary marketing claims that highlight certain aspects of how the source animals for meat and poultry products are raised. These claims must be approved by FSIS before they can be included on the labels of meat and poultry products sold to consumers. The FSIS most recently updated its guideline on these claims in 2019.

The FSIS has received several petitions, comments, and letters from a wide range of stakeholders asking the agency to re-evaluate its oversight of animal-raising claims, specifically, how they are substantiated. In addition, the veracity of “negative” antibiotics claims (e.g., “raised without antibiotics” or “no antibiotics ever”) has come into question.

The announcement said the FSIS, in partnership with USDA’s Agricultural Research Service (ARS), will be conducting a sampling project to assess antibiotic residues in cattle destined for the “raised without antibiotics” market. The results of this project will help inform whether FSIS should require that laboratory testing results be submitted for the “raised without antibiotics” claim or start a new verification sampling program.

The FSIS will also be issuing a revised industry guideline to recommend that companies strengthen the documentation they submit to the agency to substantiate animal-raising claims. The agency plans to strongly encourage the use of third-party certification to verify these claims.

These actions, when taken together, will be used to guide potential rulemaking on animal-raising claims. The USDA promised continued engagement with stakeholders as it works to ensure these claims meet consumer expectations.

The USDA is the federal executive department responsible for developing and executing federal laws related to farming, forestry, rural economic development, and certain foods.

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