What does the term grass-fed mean to you? To millions of consumers it means pasture-raised, unconfined animals. Now, a few greedy companies have lined up lobbyists to change the meaning -- and, with it, the truth -- in grass-fed labeling. Back in the 1990s, after years of pressure from the emerging organic-food industry, the U.S. Department of Agriculture finally offered a proposed definition of the term organic. Unfortunately, industrial-scale food producers saw the potential in a market that they didn't have a piece of, and hijacked the proposed rule before it reached the public. Fortunately for us, the leadership of the organic industry rallied its legion of consumers to wage a pitched battle in the form of letters, e-mail and telephone calls. And won. The USDA received more comments on a proposed rule than ever before or since. The intended meaning of organic survived.
We face a similar hijacking again -- but this time the term is "grass fed," and the food is meat, milk and cheese. Factory-system food producers, who seek to profit from the burgeoning market for grass-fed protein, are attempting to steal the meaning and therefore the market.
True grass-fed production means that the animals are free to roam pastures and therefore free of the antibiotics and hormones necessary to artificially fatten animals in unsanitary and unnaturally crowded conditions. When properly managed by proactive ranchers and farmers, free-range grassland practices are demonstrably sustainable because they mimic the natural systems that plants and hoofed species co-evolved over millions of years. Grass-fed meats are gaining market share because sound research indicates that the meat is higher in beta carotene (vitamin A), conjugated linoleic acid, and Omega-3 fatty acids, which are important in reducing cholesterol, diabetes, cancer and high-blood pressure. Grass-fed meat is also lower in fat, cholesterol and calories than meat generated by animals gorging at the end of life on corn. The USDA has proposed a rule that now would allow "grass fed" to include animal confinement and the feeding of corn and other grains in the final stages of an animal's life. These degradations of a common sense and widely understood meaning of the term are the result of industrial producers seeking to co-opt a wholesome system that thousands of small producers are using to successfully compete with industrial-meat factories. This attempt is clearly unprincipled and unethical.
The hope of thousands of quality-oriented ranchers, farmers, dairymen, cheesemakers and consumers is that the USDA will stop kowtowing to the few industrial producers and allow a high-quality approach, which could serve the many, to fully emerge and prosper. The grass-fed system is a healthy, market-driven dynamic in which consumers, who care deeply about healthy food and healthy animals, can buy what they want, even if they must pay a bit more for it. To allow a distortion that amounts to false advertising would violate the purpose of the USDA and the principle that government should protect the people.
Despite the closing of the USDA's public comment period on Aug. 10, please join thousands of others and continue to write USDA and your representatives in Congress telling them to protect the truth in the "grass-fed" rule. It must be clear and honest, meaning animals that are free to roam on open pasture, eating grass from birth to harvest.
Michael Dimock is the executive director of the Roots of Change Fund and chairman emeritus of Slow Food USA. The Roots of Change Fund is a foundation collaborative with the mission of creating a sustainable food system in California by the year 2030. To comment, go to www.regulations.gov/fdmspublic/component/main
Stopping Companies from Defrauding Consumers with Bogus 'Grass-Fed' Labels
Protecting the truth about grass-fed meats
By Michael Dimock
San Francisco Chronicle - CA, Sunday, August 13, 2006
Straight to the Source