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Make label meaningful.

Byline: The Register-Guard

To consumers, labels on food are a vital source of information. To some producers, labels are a valuable marketing tool. The U.S. Department of Agriculture is overly willing to adopt the latter view, as the years-long fight for a meaningful "organic" label showed. Now the agency is preparing a rule that would allow meat from livestock raised in feedlots to be labeled as "grass-fed." Many ranchers are upset, and the public should join them in protest.

To the person browsing the cold case in a supermarket, the "grass-fed" label on a package of meat suggests that it came from an animal that grazed in a pasture or on rangeland. But in fact, the label currently has no officially defined meaning, which has led the producers of grass-fed meat - primarily beef, but also lamb and bison - to seek USDA certification standards.

The New York Times reports that ranchers of grass-fed animals wanted a definition that required meat labeled as grass-fed to come from livestock that had lived and grazed in pastures, except during emergencies such as blizzards. They also wanted the label to mean the animals' feed had not been laced with growth-promoting antibiotics or hormones. Such standards would conform to consumers' common-sense understanding of what makes meat from grass-fed animals different, and often more costly.

The USDA, however, has proposed a much broader standard: A grass-fed animal would be one whose diet consisted of grass, legumes or forage. An animal that spent its entire life in a feedlot, never setting a hoof on pasture or rangeland, could be labeled as grass-fed as long as it had been raised on harvested forage. Such forage could include immature corn silage - feed from a plant that, in maturity, would be classified as a grain. The USDA's proposed standard makes no mention of hormones or antibiotics.

The USDA's weak proposal affects more than the conditions under which livestock is raised - though this is an important issue to many consumers. Meat from grass-fed animals is higher in disease-fighting Omega-3 fatty acids, and usually lower in fat, than meat from grain-fed animals. A fuzzy standard would leave consumers uncertain about whether meat labeled as grass-fed offered those health benefits.

Only one group would benefit from the USDA's standard: Producers who would like to label their meat as grass-fed but can't meet a strict standard. By catering to the interests of those producers, the USDA would dilute the value of the grass-fed label to ranchers and consumers alike. The agency should withdraw its proposal, and come up with labeling rules that would make the grass-fed label meaningful.
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Title Annotation:Editorials; 'Grass-fed' meat should be just that
Publication:The Register-Guard (Eugene, OR)
Article Type:Editorial
Date:Jul 28, 2006
Words:434
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