The Agriculture Department agency tasked with ensuring that food products are correctly labeled is set to update the definitions of some of the most common terms used by meat and poultry producers.

The Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) released Sept. 30 a list of proposed definitions for animal raising labels such as “grass fed,” “organic,” “free range,” “raised without antibiotics” and others, an update from its 2002 guidelines. Labels bearing animal raising claims are required to be approved by FSIS before they are used by producers.


The decision comes as food labeling takes center stage in agriculture policy. Earlier this year, Congress passed and the president signed a sweeping labeling law for ingredients made with genetically modified organisms.

The USDA is in the process of drafting rules implementing the new GMO labeling law, while the FDA may soon release a long-awaited definition of the term “natural.”

As part of the new guidance, the grass-fed label can only be applied to livestock that were fed grass for the lifetime of the animal after being weaned from their mother’s milk. Their diet must be solely derived from foraging and the animals must have continuous access to pasture during the growing season.

Producers will also need to submit to the USDA a detailed description explaining controls used to ensure that the animal is raised solely on grass, as well as a description of how grass-fed livestock are separated from the their grain-fed counterparts.

For almost 10 years, the USDA Agricultural Marketing Service had overseen a voluntary labeling program for the grass-fed label, but the agency withdrew its standard earlier this year, saying that labeling regulations were under the authority of the FSIS. Several farm groups called on the FSIS to draft a replacement standard.

The National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition praised the agency’s decision to clarify the grass-fed labeling rules.

“We are pleased that FSIS has clarified through this guidance that any label claim using the term ‘grassfed’ must meet a 100 percent grassfed standard,” NSAC Policy Director Ferd Hoefner, said in a statement. “Taking this action was necessary to preserve the label’s strong reputation, and we applaud FSIS’ swift response to producer and consumer concerns following AMS’ withdrawal of the standard earlier this year.”

The FSIS guidance extends beyond the grass-fed standard. Pasture-grown, free-roaming and meadow-raised animals need to have access to the outdoors for a minimum of 120 days a year, and their owners must provide to the USDA a detailed, written explanation of how their facility ensures the animals are raised consistent to the claims, FSIS said.

The public comment period for the FSIS guidance will run until Dec. 5.