The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) is taking a closer look at the truthfulness of meat and poultry products marketed as "free-range," "raised without antibiotics," and other similar claims about how the source animal was raised.
The USDA announced on June 14 a multi-step effort aimed at strengthening the substantiation of animal-raising claims. "Consumers should be able to trust that the label claims they see on products bearing the USDA mark of inspection are truthful and accurate," Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said in a press release.
"USDA is taking this action 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," he said.
As part of the stepped-up effort to prevent false labeling, USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) and Agricultural Research Service (ARS) are conducting a sampling project to assess antibiotic residues in cattle destined for the "raised without antibiotics" market. The results will help inform whether FSIS should require that laboratory testing results be submitted for the "raised without antibiotics" claim or start a new verification sampling program.
FSIS will also be issuing a revised industry guideline to recommend that companies strengthen the documentation they submit to the agency to substantiate animal-raising claims. The agency plans to strongly encourage use of third-party certification to verify these claims.
"Grass-fed" and "free-range" are voluntary marketing claims highlighting aspects of how the source animals for meat and poultry products are raised. These claims must be approved by FSIS before they can be included on the labels of meat and poultry products sold to consumers.
The agency most recently updated its guideline on these claims in 2019.
The FSIS has received several petitions, comments, and letters from a wide range of stakeholders asking the agency to reevaluate its oversight of animal-raising claims, specifically, how they are substantiated. In addition, the veracity of "negative" antibiotics claims (e.g., "raised without antibiotics" or "no antibiotics ever") has come into question.
The AVMA has two policies on the truthfulness of marketing claims about food animal products for human consumption: "Truthful and nonmisleading human food labeling" and "Marketing claims regarding agricultural animal food products."
A version of this story appears in the October 2023 print issue of JAVMA