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The Meaning of Grass-fed Beef

The United States Department of Agriculture has proposed a standard for grass-fed meat and, since it doesn’t require 100% grazing on lush pasture, it has people upset. Patricia Whisnant, who is both a rancher in Missouri and also runs the American Grassfed Association, explains:

“In the eye of the consumer, grass-fed is tied to open pasture-raised animals, not confinement or feedlot animals. In the consumer’s eye, you’re going to lose the integrity of what the term ’grass-fed’ means.”

Of course, that is just an opinion:

A survey by the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association found that half of consumers had heard of grass-fed beef, but only 28% believed it came from cows that grazed on grass their whole lives. Sixty percent thought the cows also ate other things, such as oats, corn, hay and alfalfa.

The USDA is concerned with developing a standard that won’t require that all cattle labeled as grass-fed have to be raised in warm climes. As a spokesperson for the USDA explained:

“With the geographic diversity found in the U.S., a farmer or rancher in Minnesota is going to have a little bit different grass-fed scheme than, say, one that’s located in Alabama, in the South where year-round grazing is available.”

A recent article in the LA Times gives a good overview, and you can read it here. It is a piece with similar controversies regarding organic beef where vague requirements for access to the outdoors have led to wildly varying interpretations and calls for changes in the law.

But the real problem here is that marketers of certain types of food are looking to use the federal government to establish meaning where there is none. We already have laws on every level of government protecting against fraud. So if suppliers want to advertise that their beef is never kept in a barn, is allowed to graze free every day of its life and never is given anything but the fresh grass to eat… if they lie and don’t do those things, they can be prosecuted under anti-fraud statutes.

The problem is that certain people would like the government to set an arbitrary definition to terms that have no such meaning.

In the US, anyone can go out there and file for a Trademark and then promote and advertise to tell the consumer what that Trademark means. If the American Grassfed Association wants to trademark a logo and then set up a certification program and promote some characteristic of its members’ meat — more power to them.

But why in the world should the federal government do the marketing for these people? Building trust in your brand is what brand building is all about.

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