When it comes to marketing and labeling challenges faced by producers, it seems country-of-origin labeling (COOL) is the only topic on the table these days. But that will change once USDA hikes its requirements for USDA-verified and USDA-certified marketing claims.

Precipitating this claims verification revolution is the recent explosion in branded retail beef and pork product lines. After prodding from various groups, both within and outside the livestock industry, USDA is proposing a new set of minimum requirements for common livestock and meat production/marketing claims used in USDA-certified or process-verified programs.

“Livestock and meat producers are increasingly using production and/or processing claims to distinguish their products in the marketplace,” says Bill Sessions, associate deputy administrator of USDA's Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS) Livestock and Seed Program, Washington, D.C. AMS administers the voluntary marketing programs.

“AMS, through its certification and audit programs, verifies the accuracy of claims made by our program participants,” he explains. “The new standards will go a step further in establishing the minimum requirements for livestock and meat producers who choose to incorporate their marketing claims into USDA-certified or USDA-verified programs.”

Verification of these program claims may be through examination of the product or documentation and auditing of the production process. USDA may also request third-party verification to increase the credibility of claims producers make in raising, finishing, processing and marketing their animals.

More Than A BQA Program

Gary Cowman, Denver, CO, says USDA is simply trying to tighten and standardize specs related to certified and process-verified marketing programs. He represents the National Cattlemen's Beef Association's link in a national network of beef quality assurance (BQA) programs.

“The USDA's claims verification process shouldn't be something to get alarmed about or get the idea that the government is trying to establish how to raise beef,” Cowman says. “This only applies to marketing programs that are, or intend to be, certified by USDA.”

But, he says, there's a growing awareness among consumers about such programs. The result, Cowman adds, is that the USDA-certified and USDA-verified programs “open the doors to all producers who want to raise their animals in a way that can add value to them,” Cowman says. “It certainly opens another marketing window — and takes BQA a step further.”

Is There More To It?

But, some people think these proposals are a harbinger of significant change.

“The new guidelines will change the way food animals are bred, fed, handled and treated,” says C.J. Oakwood, Oakwood, IL. He's president of CattleCo Data Systems and a longtime consultant to the animal health industry.

“With these new rules, meat animal producers who are part of a certified or verified program will be required to document their claims and must submit to periodic audits by USDA,” Oakwood says. But, there may be repercussions for beef producers who aren't directly involved in a USDA-certified or USDA-verified program.

“Those animals that don't meet a certain buyer's requirements may have lesser value to the feeder, packer or retailer that subscribes to one of these programs,” Oakwood explains. He says producers who install at least a BQA program and keep complete, accurate and verifiable management records may be the people first in line in the marketplace.

The bottom line is, producers will be asked to keep more and better records.

“Sooner or later, records will be as important to the value and marketability of your food animals as the animals themselves,” Oakwood says. “A food animal producer must keep records of management if he's going to prove he has placed a genetically sound, healthy and well-managed product in the marketplace.”

A Case In Point

Some of Laura's Lean Beef Company's retail cuts carry certification marks by the American Heart Association (AHA). That means package contents meet AHA's criteria for saturated fat and cholesterol levels.

But in early June, AHA ordered Lexington, KY-based Laura's Lean to stop using AHA's heart check logo on ribeye and strip steaks within 30 days or face legal action.

Earlier in the year, the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) advised the AHA about what it says is a misuse of AHA's logo by Laura's Lean, according to Michael Jacobson, CSPI's executive director. CSPI says that, on average, the steaks they tested contained more than twice as much saturated fat and 40% more calories than the company claims.

John Tobe, chairman of Laura's Lean, says the problem lies in how CSPI is choosing to interpret USDA's guidelines and regulations.

“CSPI pulled and tested only selected packages as opposed to looking at an average of the cuts over a period of time,” he explains. “We're working with USDA to clear-up this confusion. We've been following their guidelines all along.”

Tobe says CSPI and AHA want to look at the product claims in a “worst-case scenario.” But, he says that's not practical in an industry dealing with a biological product that varies in its consistency.

“We need one set of guidelines that everybody has to abide by,” Tobe says.

CSPI is among the activist groups campaigning for USDA to more aggressively monitor and verify information provided on meat and poultry labels — and stop firms from using terms that the groups feel are misleading or inaccurate.

Fulfilling “Claim” Requirements

Here are some of the terms USDA has targeted in its effort to provide more clarity and uniformity:

  • Breed of livestock — must meet criteria established by a recognized breed association.

  • Antibiotic use — procedures for treating and handling sick animals.

  • Livestock production practices — free range, corn-fed or grass-fed.

  • Geographic regions — identifying where animals are raised or marketed.

  • Hormones — tightening definitions for use or non-use of feed additives and growth promotants.

  • Preconditioning and backgrounding — protocols and non-therapeutic use of vitamin additives.

  • End-product characteristics — dry-aged, as well as taste and tenderness claims.

And, to fulfill source verification requirements, animals must have unique, individual animal identification. The American Information Number (AIN) system or other method that provides for unique identification of animals and verification of program claims may be used.

Back To The Drawing Board

The Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (SAC) is applauding the AMS move. But, SAC contends the definitions need tweaking in the areas of antibiotics, free-range, grass-fed and hormones.

Ann Wright, SAC senior policy associate, agrees with Oakwood that although the verification process is voluntary, the setting of minimum standards by AMS will “largely transform the marketplace.” She thinks the process could have far-reaching implications to small and moderate-sized farms and ranches that have built their enterprises and niche markets on such claims.

The ambiguity of the proposed standards is exemplified in theprovisions for labeling meat “grass-fed.” Under the current proposal, this definition is met even if animals receive as much as 20% of their nutrition from sources other than grazing.

Wright says that, without further clarification, the proposed grass-fed label might confuse consumers who believe they are buying a 100% grass-fed product. That would undermine producers who incur the additional time and costs associated with allowing cattle to finish on a natural grass diet.

National breed associations will establish minimum breed claim criteria. If a breed association doesn't have minimum breed claim criteria, breed claims must be traceable to a parent registered with the national breed association.

Don Schiefelbein, American Gelbvieh Association executive director, says the association supports development and promotion of beef brands — breed-based or otherwise.

“However, we have strong concerns regarding the promotion of breed-based brands based on generic phenotypic breed characteristics only,” he says. “Rather, we support the development and promotion of breed-based brands only if those claims can be accurately documented based on genotypic evidence.”

Sessions and AMS seem to be listening to the comments and concerns voiced. The claims proposal generated more than 12,500 public comments by the March 31 deadline. Sessions says more work is needed to make the proposals fair before they're finalized.

“The claims for antibiotics, hormones, free range and grass-fed, and breed have been pulled off the table at this point,” he says. “We'll try and develop another consensus on them from stakeholders and interested parties and reissue standards for those five claims. We think we can reach consensus on the other claims as they stand and publish standards for them.”

Defining The Programs

Some segments of the livestock and meat industries make claims to distinguish their products from competing products and may request third-party verification by USDA to increase the credibility of their claims. USDA's Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS) is proposing minimum requirements for common production and marketing claims that may be used in voluntary USDA-Certified or USDA-Verified programs for the livestock and meat industries (Docket No. LS-02-02).

Certified Programs: Products whose manufacturers develop their own specifications, then have USDA monitor and certify authenticity. Specs may include breed percentages, live animal confirmation, and marbling and/or yield grade.

Verified Programs: This is the strictest program AMS operates. Process-verified product must meet livestock management specs (such as use of specified genetics, mandatory breed origins and feeding protocol), and carcass and cutting specs (such as use of electrical stimulation and minimum days of aging).

Among the 35 AMS-certified beef programs are familiar names such as Certified Angus Beef, Certified Hereford Beef and Excel Corporation Sterling Silver. Less common names include Mopac's Steakhouse Classic Angus, Elkhorn Valley Packing Angus Beef and Oregon Trail Premium Beef.

There are far fewer AMS process-verified and brand name beef programs. They include PM Beef Group Ranch to Retail and Red Angus Association of America.

Claims may be verified through examination of the product or through documentation and auditing of the production process.

To view the proposed Standards for Livestock and Meat Marketing Claims and public comments filed electronically as of March 31, visit: www.ams.usda.gov/lsg/stand/claim.htm.