Something good may come out of the "raised without antibiotics" label issue that created a court battle among poultry processors over the last two years. USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) and the USDA Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS) jointly held a public meeting on animal raising claims in October. These claims can cover a variety of things such as "free-range," "raised without antibiotics," "grass-fed," "all-vegetable diet," "naturally raised," and "raised without hormones."

Both FSIS and AMS have approved these claims in the past, and these two segments of the USDA have not always agreed on what specific claims meant. This has led to some inconsistency and confusion. FSIS has approved labels on a case by case basis, and this has, at times, resulted in company "A" being approved to use a label claim when company "B" is denied under very similar circumstances.

Asking for input

Mary Poretta, program analyst, policy issuance division, office of policy, FSIS, said that USDA is interested in receiving responses to the following questions.

  • Should FSIS continue to approve label claims based on animal raising standards developed by private entities and by companies themselves if the agency has reviewed the standards and determines that they would not render a claim false or misleading?
  • Should FSIS establish any performance criteria or standards for certifying entities? Or, should the agency require that certifying entities be reviewed and approved by AMS?
  • Should FSIS establish minimum standards that companies would have to achieve to qualify to use animal raising claims?
  • And, for those animal raising claims for which AMS adopted standards, should FSIS adopt the AMS standard as the minimal standard?
  • Would the certification approach that USDA is considering create any inequities or create any problems for companies interested in using animal raising claims on the meat or poultry products?
  • What other approaches should FSIS consider for evaluating and approving animal raising claims?

Looking for clarity and consistency

Representatives from a few poultry companies, the Truthful Labeling Coalition, and five consumer groups gave comments at the meeting. The consensus seemed to be that the term "naturally raised" had little value because it was not well defined.

Urvashi Rangan, senior scientist, Consumers Union, which publishes Consumer Reports, made some of the most interesting remarks. "Now this new thing has risen called naturally raised,' which is so amorphous; the standards underneath it do not constitute what consumers think of as naturally raised and we are disappointed to hear that those standards may go forward as they've been proposed, especially with so many comments indicating that things, such as animal welfare, whether the animal had access to the outdoors, aren't even a part of those standards at all," Urvashi said.

Certification is essential

Consumer group representatives and producers at the meeting, most of whom use antibiotic-free production as a significant part of their business, agreed that USDA needs to set standards that are transparent, clearly defined, and can be certified.

Urvashi summarized the sentiments of many of the speakers at the meeting when he said, "We don't think that you can roll up no antibiotics and no hormones under this very loose and vague claim. Those specific and discrete claims lead to your definition and whether it's all drugs, no drugs, antibiotics, antimicrobials, we all need to know what it is so that we can figure out what it is these producers are certifying to."

The USDA was scheduled to end its written comment period on animal raising claims on November 14. The agency must balance the desires of consumers and industry to set clearly defined standards with mechanisms for verification, while not coming up with a system that will increase costs to the point where products in these market niches are no longer affordable.

Let the marketplace decide

Freedom of choice is what it is all about. If everyone understands what the claims mean, and the claims have been verified, then the market place will decide if they make economic sense. This is infinitely better than taking the approach of government mandates of how animals must be raised, like antibiotic use being banned or curtailed like has happened in Europe.