- The U.S. Department of Agriculture announced a new effort to strengthen the substantiation on claims like “grass-fed”, “free-range” and “raised without antibiotics” that appear on meat and poultry product labels.
- The effort came after petitions and comments from stakeholders requested the government to rethink how these animal-raising claims are administered, USDA said. These claims must first be approved by USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) before the food can be sold. FSIS will strongly encourage third-party certification to verify the claims, and will issue revised guidelines at a later date.
- The action signals further interest from the Biden administration in regulating the meat and poultry sector, after previously targeting the four biggest processors for their concentration of the industry.
In the press release, USDA said the action aims to protect consumers from “false and misleading” labels, touting the administration’s agenda of promoting competition in the marketplace.
Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said the goal of the initiative is to make sure products featuring the USDA inspection mark are accurately representing their claims.
“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,” Vilsack said.
One claim the department said stakeholders have called into question is “raised without antibiotics.” USDA said it plans to evaluate the veracity of the claim by conducting assessments of antibiotic residues in cattle. It will then determine whether producers must require laboratory testing results for its cattle, or if it should develop a new verification system for the claims, it said in the press release.
FSIS last updated its guidelines on animal-raising claims in 2019, under the Trump administration, which detailed what information is needed to accompany claims like “raised without antibiotics” and “raised without hormones.”
Pressure on USDA to provide more accuracy on meat claims came from activist groups and lawmakers. A report earlier this year from advocacy group the Animal Welfare Institute found that 85% of claims from meat products that received the USDA’s approval lacked adequate substantiation. In March, Democratic Sens. including Elizabeth Warren (Massachusetts), Cory Booker (New Jersey) and Richard Blumenthal (Connecticut) wrote a letter to USDA, urging the department to address misleading claims.
There is evidence that specific claims on food product labels about purported benefits or ethical growing practices have influence over consumer purchasing decisions. A 2022 survey from Edelman data found consumers are more likely to buy products with labels like “raised without antibiotics” and “cruelty-free” than the “USDA Organic” label.
Activist groups responded positively to USDA’s announcement. Lance B. Price, founder of the Antibiotic Resistance Action Center at George Washington University’s Milken Institute School of Public Health, told Food Dive in an emailed statement that consumers must be able to know animal-raised claims are backed by evidence. He also called on companies to reduce the use of antibiotic drugs in order to halt the spread of drug-resistant bacteria.
“Companies know consumers are moved by animal rights so they often link reduced antibiotic use claims to improved animal welfare,” Price said. “These claims must be backed by empirical testing to validate producers who are truthfully using these claims and protect consumers from false and misleading labels.”