Grass-fed and naturally raised are among the many claims seen on products in the supermarket meat case today. But these labels are currently backed by a variety of different standards, despite shoppers' preconceptions of what these terms mean.
In an effort to offer a set of standards that producers can adhere to and shoppers can understand, the U.S. Department of Agriculture has been working on official grass-fed and naturally raised marketing claim standards. In October, the agency established a voluntary standard for grass-fed. Currently, although standards for grass-fed have been established, a program has not yet been implemented, so no products are carrying a USDA Certified Grass Fed stamp.
Standards for the naturally raised marketing claim are currently being developed following a comment period that ended in March.
The standards will hopefully be completed this year, according to Lloyd Day, administrator, USDA Agricultural Marketing Service, Washington. And the agency hopes that the new standards will help bring some clarity and consistency to the market.
“Clearly, we don't go out to develop a standard for something that producers aren't already trying to use,” said Craig Morris, deputy administrator, USDA AMS Livestock and Seed program.
“We are in effect trying to bring some consistency to claims which are already being stated in the marketplace. In other words, we aren't trying to take a commodity supply of, let's say, beef out there and start arbitrarily assigning claims. These are things that are already occurring in the marketplace, and our role in the AMS is to help provide buyers and sellers with a level playing field.”
Morris noted the subjective nature of the grass-fed and naturally raised terms.
“Different companies were approaching us wanting to make the same claim — same subjective term, but their standards behind it were different,” Morris said.
“For these two areas, we decided that we needed to look for a common standard, and we found that there wasn't one.”
USDA also just established another marketing claim in late 2007 — the USDA Process Verified Never Ever 3 claim. Never Ever 3 essentially combines three claims — no antibiotics, no artificial growth promotants and no animal by-products.
“A lot of people were concerned about that kind of stuff, so we're really just reacting to the marketplace. But, we want to make sure that if the company is [making a claim], there are some parameters around it, and that's the purpose for all these things,” said Day.
Day said that the USDA AMS felt it was necessary to develop three separate claims — grass-fed, naturally raised, and the Never Ever 3 claims — because grass-fed does not mean the same as naturally raised, and none of the claims encompasses the others fully.
“We're trying to differentiate these types of things so when the consumer goes to the marketplace, if they like something like grass-fed beef, that's what they'll get,” Day explained.
“If they have concerns about natural production as opposed to what does ‘natural’ really mean, they can have that choice as well. And then a lot of folks just don't want any growth promotants or any type of antibiotics, and so the Never Ever 3 will give them that opportunity.”
During the past year, many consumers, suppliers, trade organizations and retailers have taken the opportunity to comment on both grass-fed and naturally raised marketing claims. The USDA received 44,000 comments on the naturally raised claim alone, according to Morris. But while most have applauded the USDA's effort to develop these standards, many have disagreed over the parameters of the new rules. Food activists, along with natural and organic food retailers, in particular have said that the standards fail to address important issues like humane treatment and access to pastures and outdoor space.
PCC Natural Markets, Seattle, for example, sent a letter of comment on behalf of its members to the USDA in January arguing that a USDA certified naturally raised label should make a strong statement about animal care to consumers. The USDA's version of the rule at the time, however, did little to address humane treatment or other issues.
“If USDA's proposal were to be approved, livestock producers could label their meat as being USDA verified naturally raised — without any concern for animal welfare, environmental stewardship or even access to natural living conditions or feed (pasture grasses) suitable to their species,” the letter, which was signed by Tracy Wolpert, chief executive officer of PCC, said.
“This appears to be intentionally misleading and would undermine seriously the USDA's Grass Fed and Certified Organic labels.”
Similarly, the Organic Trade Association has argued that there's a lot of potential for confusion with a USDA “naturally raised” claim, since the agency already allows producers to label any product that is minimally processed after slaughter as “all natural.”
“If they're going to have additional standards for meat products, they should be aligned, as there are already standards or regulations in place for what meat producers can say about natural products,” said Holly Givens, spokeswoman for the OTA.
“The naturally raised proposal was different, and potentially confusing for customers, because meat products could then have said ‘natural’ or ‘naturally raised’ and [the product] could have been ‘natural’ and ‘naturally raised.’ Or, if it was ‘naturally raised,’ it still might not have been ‘natural.’ So, the other part of that is that OTA would want products with those labels to have verification by some third party to make sure people are using the claim appropriately.”
Day agreed that it is important to note the difference. “I think it's important to note — for the naturally raised in particular — when someone calls something natural, the Food Safety and Inspection Service's definition is really related to the processing and preservation of that product, not how it was raised. [But] because there's huge and growing consumer demand for more naturally raised animals, that's why people started coming to us for a definition related to that claim,” Day told SN.
The overlap and differences accounted for between various production methods create a need to establish separate standards. Although the new naturally raised label, as currently drafted, would not address animal handling, other labels do.
Products carrying a free-range label mean that the animal was free to roam outside confined areas. The grass-fed label means that the livestock grazed in a pasture and ate forage for a majority of its life, with the exception of milk consumed prior to weaning.
Neither of those labels alone addresses whether the animal was treated with antibiotics or hormones, which is why it is necessary to have the other, separate standards, Day said.
“The undersecretary kind of refers to them as Russian nesting dolls,” Day told SN.
“And so, they're all a little bit different, but they're all fairly similar, and they will all, we think, help producers differentiate their products for different types of markets and different types of market segments, be it domestic or international.”
All of the claims are voluntary standards and are a way for meat producers using alternative production methods “to capture value-added opportunities,” according to the USDA docket filed in the Federal Register.
“So, what we're really trying to do is to help producers get the maximum value possible for their livestock — not so much that we were going to consumers and saying ‘What's a new area that we could develop a standard for,’” said Morris.
“This claim in effect was already out there — the problem was that all of the buyers out there were having to set up their own little dedicated supply systems to make sure that they could get animals that met their own individual program standards.”
Morris added that producers who use the USDA's voluntary third-party services pay a fee, “and so, obviously, in their case, they're seeing a return on investment.”
“The reason we set these programs up is so that producers can command a premium for products which might exceed the commodity [price],” Morris said. “Similarly, consumers can have confidence, when they make a purchasing decision based on one of those claims, that the products meet that claim. They can have confidence when they see USDA's name associated with it.”
Yet the USDA's efforts are unlikely to stop label proliferation anytime soon. The American Grassfed Association's board, for example, recently voted to start certifying grass-fed meat operations under a new industry-backed standard administered by Food Alliance.
“According to Consumers Union, the consumer thinks that a grass-fed animal has been raised in a pastoral setting — the USDA claim only addresses what the animal eats, not where it eats, how it eats or how it is treated,” Carrie Balkcom, executive director of AGA, explained. “AGA [believes] that the consumer will be confused and misled by this narrow definition.”
Wolpert also addressed consumer perceptions of what these terms mean in the USDA's letter of comment.
“The USDA's proposal, as it stands, fails to give consumers accurate information and fails to support their expectations in what such a label should mean,” Wolpert wrote in the letter.
When asked how the USDA feels about AGA establishing its own standards, Day was very inviting.
“They're welcome to develop their own standard and put it out into the marketplace,” Day told SN.
“What we did was, we set essentially a floor for anyone who wants to utilize the USDA marketing claim, and then consumers can make a choice based on what they prefer.”
Balkcom said that AGA feels it is important to establish grass-fed standards “to give the consumer a true grass-fed product — one that means what it says — and to allow the producers in the U.S. to be able to market their products with integrity and honesty,” she said.
While the USDA's intention in establishing these standards is to help clarify issues to consumers and provide them with options, according to Day, many argue that the numerous claims will only further confuse the consumer.
Marketing claims such as “grass-fed” or “naturally raised” on meat and dairy are still relatively new concepts for the vast majority of consumers, according to Michelle Barry, president of Bellevue, Wash.-based research consultancy Tinderbox.
“While a small percentage of consumers are able to accurately define these claims and draw connections to quality, taste and health perceptions, most do not understand the nuances of these processes,” Barry told SN.
“Having said that, consumers are increasingly making distinctions in quality across categories and paying more attention to new narratives, messaging and communications that differentiate products in meaningful ways.”
Meat and dairy are key categories where these narratives are sought after and entertained, and the probability of these claims becoming mainstream knowledge are relatively high, given what has been going on in food trends over the years, Barry added.
The emergence of these new marketing claims will definitely increase confusion among consumers, because there hasn't been enough marketing to explain what they mean, said David Lockwood, director of research, Chicago-based Mintel International.
“The best example is with the organic claim, which literally took 10 years from the time Congress said ‘Go start a national organic program’ to the time that it was implemented,” Lockwood said.
“That 10 years was necessary to educate people on what it meant, and even when they did finally roll it out, there was still a lot of confusion. Now, however, people have come to accept it, and they understand that the USDA Organic seal has significant meaning, but they don't even know exactly what that means.”
Mintel conducted a survey in 2006 to gauge people's understanding of the definition of ‘organic.’
“I don't know if it was a little underhanded, because most people aren't likely to know exactly what the definition is, but we just wanted to see what it would be, and only 18% of the people had the right definition,” Lockwood said.
One choice in the Mintel survey was “no artificial flavors or ingredients,” and another was “environmentally friendly and free of artificial ingredients.” The correct response was “produced without synthetic pesticides or fertilizers,” and there was also an “all of the above” option.
“Two-thirds of the people picked ‘all of the above,’ which to us just said people understand it's good, but they don't know specifically what it means,” Lockwood said.
Marketing and communication are key to minimizing confusion, both Barry and Lockwood said.
Marketing efforts should be done hand in hand with trade associations and other governmental bodies if possible, Lockwood said.
“It can't just come from one source — that's the one thing we have learned over the years, is that if people see something from one very authoritative source, they ignore it, but if they see the same message coming from a few different sources, they take that as absolute truth,” he added.
“And, of course, it takes more than once for people to register that they've seen it, so it does need to be a message coming from as many bodies as possible that are credible.”
Barry said that retailers will also play a much more significant role in minimizing confusion, given their ability to widely stage and communicate these messages beyond the back panel of a package.
“The human component of being able to ask questions, describe the processes, taste the difference, and evangelize from consumer to consumer is the strongest reinforcement here,” Barry told SN.
“Manufacturers will likely have a more difficult time communicating these distinctions — they will need to be much more creative in resonating with consumers beyond the functional aspects of these claims.”
Lockwood said that Mintel thinks retailers should be very involved in helping people choose, but the key is that, although the USDA has a clear definition of what grass-fed means, there is no clear marketing program to explain why it is important.
“That particular part isn't really up to the retailers, until it's been created by the people who are interested in the ‘grass-fed’ and ‘naturally raised’ claim — the trade associations, the USDA. Once it's all created and it's an official claim, well, then maybe it does make sense for retailers to start talking about it.”