This time, “grass fed” really means “grass fed.”

Have you ever stood at the meat counter wondering what “grass fed” really means? Soon, when you see “grass fed” and the “USDA Process Verified” logo on the same label, you will know that the meat comes from animals with a lifetime diet of at least 99% grass or forage.

       USDA released the “marketing claim” definition in May for public comment, open until August 10.


What's a marketing claim?

       By law, all meat labels have to be approved by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). In the 1970s, when a few pioneering ranchers started marketing beef raised without hormone implants and antibiotics, USDA began to allow voluntary “marketing claims” on meat labels - “no hormones administered” and “no antibiotics,” for example.

       For years, USDA handled applications to use various marketing claims, including grass fed, on a case-by-case basis. Several years ago, the agency decided to standardize a set of commonly requested claims to bring consistency to product labels and avoid consumer confusion. The small staff that handles these claims was overwhelmed by the number of requests. In 1996, only two came in per week, but by 2004, they fielded 15 per day. And many wanted to make the same or similar claims but had to be handled one by one without a standard definition in place.

       Grass fed was one of the first of a new set of marketing claims to be defined. The first attempt fell flat: in 2002, USDA proposed the now infamous “80-20” standard, meaning that up to 20% of a grass fed animal’s lifetime diet could be grain and other concentrates.  Public response ran solidly against the idea. Only three comments received by USDA, out of the hundreds that came in, were in favor of 80-20.

       USDA started over, this time in close collaboration with a coalition of organizations representing farmers and ranchers, consumers, natural meat companies, natural foods retailers, and public health, environment, and animal welfare groups. Two years and many meetings later, the coalition arrived at consensus and recommended that the USDA adopt a 99% standard.  The agency agreed. 


What the standard says

“Grass, forbs, browse, forage, or stockpiled forages, and post-harvest crop residue without separated grain shall be at least 99 percent of the energy source for the lifetime of the ruminant species, with the exception of milk consumed prior to weaning. Routine mineral and vitamin supplementation may also be included in the feeding regimen.” The standard can be applied to cattle, sheep, and other ruminant livestock (not pigs).


What the standard does NOT say

       The coalition recommended that the USDA “grass fed” standard include a prohibition on feeding mammalian or poultry proteins, the use of antibiotics except for treatment of disease, and feedlot confinement. The coalition-proposed standard would have included a land stewardship element, requiring stocking rates never to exceed sustainable management standards per NRCS guidelines. However, the USDA decided that the “grass fed” claim should be narrowly focused and the other elements were covered by other standards or agencies. Grass fed producers who do not use hormone implants, for example, can apply to use the “no hormones administered” marketing claim on their labels.


How the marketing claim will work

The grass fed marketing claim will be administered by the USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS), as part of the “Process Verified Program.” Here’s how it works: a livestock producer requests that AMS verify his “grass fed” claim. AMS does an on-site evaluation to make sure the producer’s feed regime meets the standard. Then the producer can label his products as “grass fed” with the “USDA Process Verified” statement and logo.



The USDA grass fed standard is not yet law but is still open for public comment. The USDA wants to hear from the public: producers, consumers, and everyone else, whether or not this proposed standard should be approved.

- Lauren Gwin 


Comments on the grass fed standard are due August 10 and should be sent to:


Martin E. O'Connor

Chief, Standardization Branch,

Livestock and Seed Program, AMS, USDA

Room 2607-S, 1400 Independence Avenue, SW.

Washington, DC 20250-0254.