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New labeling guideline is out for organic meats and poultry

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Published Feb. 1, 2020

At the end of December, the U.S. Department of Agriculture released its new labeling guideline “to substantiate animal raising claims for label submissions” and clarify terms such as organic, grass fed or pasture raised.

            The label guideline was revised after the USDA’s Food Safety Inspection Service (FSIS) asked for and received thousands of public comments in 2016 on a draft policy about documenting these additional claims of how animals are raised before entering the market. 

            The National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC) and many other animal groups are concerned with false and “misleading” claims by some beef, pork and poultry producers calling themselves organic that were not certified, for example.

            USDA’s Food Safety Inspection Service lays out how it will substantiate claims and standards of animal welfare and environmental stewardship, animal breed, diet, living and raising conditions, negative antibiotics use, negative hormone use, source and traceability, third-party certification and organic certification.

Documentation

            To add marketing claims, very detailed written descriptions and signed and dated documents are required to show products would not be misleading. It does not require site visits to verify producers’ claims of how animals are raised. 

Instead, it still relies on paperwork that producers and suppliers fill out and submit to FSIS for labeling approval.

               The Dec. 27 Federal Register notice states, “FSIS published the guideline to assist establishments that manufacture meat and poultry products labeled with animal-raising claims to prepare their label approval applications and to facilitate the FSIS review of labels bearing animal-raising claims.”
               It points out, “Animal raising claims are voluntary marketing claims, and establishments are not required to use any of the claims listed in the guideline. However, if they do, establishments may refer to the guideline to help them provide the documentation FSIS needs to evaluate labels bearing animal raising claims and to determine whether such claims are truthful and not misleading.”
Organic process 

            The new guidance is meant to help authenticate other claims that certified organic producers want to add to their labels with a USDA “organic seal.”

            “We are pleased tFSIS has clarified label claim guidelines for the organic label, as well as claims for grass-fed beef and pasture-raised poultry,” said Kelly Nuckolls, NSAC policy specialist. “The revised guidance makes clear that the USDA organic label is sufficient documentation for making a variety of other label claims supported by the organic seal, including ‘raised without antibiotics,’ ‘no added hormones,’ ‘no animal-by-products’ and ‘non-GMO.’ This is an important update for organic producers that will streamline their operations by reducing unnecessary duplicative paperwork, and one for which NSAC strongly advocated.”

Non-GMO guideline

            On Dec. 30, FSIS also released an updated guideline for labeling claims that bioengineered or genetically modified ingredients or animal feed not used in meat, poultry or egg products. 

“Unfortunately, FSIS failed to address the lack of clarity surrounding the non-GMO claim process and label, which will result in the continued proliferation of misleading non-GMO labels particularly on products derived from animals that were fed GMO feed – for the foreseeable future,” said Nuckolls.

            FSIS now recognizes that several hormones are approved for use in swine production.

            Any beef, spending any time at all in a feedlot, cannot be labeled “grass fed.” As for free range or descriptions such as pasture raised, pasture fed, pasture grown or meadow raised, FSIS says to approve these claims, additional documentation must be submitted to substantiate the claim.

            A percentage claim will reflect an animal’s feedlot history by saying “made from cows that are fed 85 percent grass and 15 percent corn” instead of “85 percent grass fed.”

            The claim “grass finished” is not the same as “grass fed’ because animals that are “grass finished” can be fed grain, in which case the claim “grain fed, grass finished” would be truthful and not misleading.

            “Free range” and “cage free” poultry cannot spend any time whatsoever confined. However, the claim can be used that chickens “never spent time in cages.” On the issue of “free range” terminology only, FSIS is taking comments through Feb. 25.

            “During the winter months in a northern climate, birds are not free range if they stay in poultry housing or coops all winter,” it says. “Producer documentation to support the use of the claim for birds raised in a northern climate during winter months would also need to describe the housing conditions for the birds and demonstrate continuous, free access to the outside throughout their normal growing cycle.”

            To read the new guidelines and submit comments on the “free range” poultry terminology, visit fsis.usda.gov/wps/portal/fsis/topics/regulatory-compliance/compliance-guides-index.

            Joy Ufford is a corresponding writer for the Wyoming Livestock Roundup. Send comments on this article to roundup@wylr.net.

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