January 21, 2009

Naturally Raising a Ruckus

Some of the final rule-making acts of the Bush administration came, chillingly, out of the USDA. One involved the USDA announcing a new "naturally raised" label for meat. Now, food labeling is a definitely a mess and standards are important. The USDA Organic label, while it remains a battleground, has to be judged a success - so far. Anyway, the new "naturally raised" definition was hotly debated during the public comment period. Sustainable ag folks lobbied hard for criteria that would, besides ensure that the label live up to its name, effectively disallow meat from factory farms to be considered in any way "naturally raised." Via The Ethicurean, here's what they wanted:
  • Grassfed
  • Outdoor access
  • No breeding via artificial insemination
  • Human treatment of animals
  • Pollution restrictions
Now, I think there's a legitimate question as to whether grain-fed meat should be considered "naturally raised." But the other items on that list sound pretty reasonable. Here, according to the USDA, is what they got:
The naturally raised marketing claim standard states that livestock used for the production of meat and meat products have been raised entirely without growth promotants, antibiotics (except for ionophores used as coccidiostats for parasite control), and have never been fed animal by-products.
Needless to say, the Sustainable Agriculture Coalition is not amused. Their basic point is that the new "naturally raised" standard is more accurately a "hormone and antibiotic free" standard. So why confuse consumers with a label that promises a whole lot more than that?

They are undoubtedly right. But it begs a question. How many factory farms or even large-scale producers could qualify even for this new, attenuated "naturally raised" label? If you take antibiotics out of the equation (not to mention growth hormones) aren't the big guys pretty much out, too? I don't know the answer and I'm also not cheering the USDA on this one. I'm just asking.

I should also point out that this rule may fall under President Obama's first executive order freezing, and potentially rolling back, last-minute regulations issued by the outgoing Bush administration. Certainly this will apply to the USDA's last-minute ruling that genetically engineered meat and fish do not need to be labeled as such. Both Obama and new USDA chief Tom Vilsack are big supporters of labeling, including for Country of Origin and GMOs. Hard to believe they'd give Franken-cows a pass.

Photo by foxypar4 used under a CC license

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