Created on 2016-12-06 14:27
Published on 2016-12-06 14:59
Summary: Rather than encouraging producers to implement a small set of practices to achieve a limited marketing claim, we believe that consumers should have the ability to be informed of all the practices used by each operation. Fortuitously, a broad coalition of global food and agricultural conglomerates recently successfully petitioned the US Congress to establish the principle of Full Online Operating Disclosure (FOOD). Now, companies can print web site addresses or Quick Response (QR) codes on packaging to allow curious consumers to access unlimited data about how products are produced. It’s only a small step for the FSIS to require meat producers to provide full disclosure on ALL of their animal raising practices.
Dr. Daniel L. Engeljohn, Assistant Administrator, Office of Policy and Program Development // U.S. Department of Agriculture, Food Safety and Inspection Service // Patriots Plaza 3, 1400 Independence Avenue SW., Mailstop 3782, Room 8-163B // Washington, DC 20250-3700 // RE: FSIS-2016-0021-0001
Documentation Needed to Substantiate Animal Raising Claims for Label Submission
Dear Mr. Englejohn,
Thank you for accepting this comment regarding the documentation of animal raising claims.
I work for a national grocery chain whose customers tend to be highly engaged and knowledgeable about farming and food production methods. Over many years we have carefully educated consumers about animal raising methods for beef cattle, dairy cows, hogs, poultry and other meats. This has provided us the opportunity to understand how and where consumers become confused about marketing claims. And we have also become agile experts and disentangling confusing and contradictory claims like “All Natural” and “Naturally Raised” meats. Lastly, we bear the brunt of disappointed and angry consumers who feel they have been intentionally misled by untruthful label claims.
I understand the goal of the FSIS is to attempt to reduce or eliminate consumer confusion and frustration by ensuring that any animal raising claim made on a meat product (or meat ingredient in a processed food product) is adequately substantiated by the maker of the claim. The recently published FSIS Labeling Guideline on Documentation Needed to Substantiated Animal Raising Claims for Label Submissions does an admirable job ensuring that producers and marketers have a clear regulatory path toward label claim compliance.
However, in the broader picture consumers will likely end up more confused and consternated. The Guideline essentially allows any claim to made, however narrow, as long as it is true in fact and verifiable in practice. The problem is that the average consumer often gives too much weight to individual claims. He or she reads into a claim like “Naturally Raised” all kinds of mythical attributes, even though that vague term may in fact refer to meat from run of the mill CAFO cattle. Marketers who highlight individual attributes like “Raised without antibiotics or hormones” run the risk of accidentally misleading consumers who may read more into the claim than it actually represents.
Below is a chart that lists a broad number of concerns that engaged consumers often value as important attributes of the products they buy. The table is organized by type of attribute, with a representative list of attributes listed under each type, written in the form of a question. These are the challenging questions we hear from our customers day after day. Note that the primary claim being analyzed by this table is “Raised without hormones or antibiotics.” In that column, we have listed the attributes and practices that FSIS proposes to require as documentation of the claim prior to approval.
As shown from the consumer’s perspective, the “Raised without hormones or antibiotics” claim, while certainly meaningful, is woefully incomplete. The full range of issues of concern to consumers reach far beyond one, two, or three animal raising claims on a package of meat.
While we would caution the FSIS from assuming that producers and marketers are intentionally deflecting attention from other significant concerns while promoting one or two animal raising claims, we would point out that the result of the Guideline is just that. Consumers are not provided full, complete, transparent and accessible information on animal raising practices.
The “grass fed” and “100% grass fed” are particularly problematic. On the following page you will find a similar table demonstrating the limited practices that will be required by the FSIS under the proposed Guidelines to receive approval to use the grassfed claim. And yet, consumers continue to give near magical status to the grassfed claim. Yet under the Guideline a producer can violate any number of consumer expectations with impunity. It’s only a matter of time before engaged and informed consumers revolt against this kind of confusing and obfuscating marketing practice.
It’s clear that the Guideline, while honorable in its intent to clarify individual claims and provide transparency to consumers, falls short in its goal to fully inform consumers and avoid misleading claims.
Any individual claim, without comprehensive disclosure, is a misleading claim.
Some certifying organizations have successfully addressed this problem. The USDA National Organic Program’s “USDA Organic” marketing claim encompasses many (but not all) of the issues of concern to consumers listed in the above tables. The program reaches a consensus on goals and principles, then allows accredited certifying agents to verify that actual on-farm practices are compliant. The NOP’s National List maintains a hard schedule of do’s and don’ts for producers and certifiers to use as reference.
Similarly, the American Grassfed Association “Certified Grassfed” program is another high quality seal. Because it requires animals to be on pasture, 100% grass fed, with no GMO feed or seed, and zero tolerance for antibiotics (among other animal raising practices), the comprehensive AGA seal accurately accounts for almost all of the issues that consumers ask about. That each operation is audited by a third party is also important. The difference between AGA Certified Grassfed and what the FSIS Guideline will allow to be labeled as “grass fed” is night and day.
Rather than encouraging producers to implement a small set of practices to achieve a limited marketing claim, we believe that consumers should have the ability to be informed of all the practices used by each operation. Fortuitously, a broad coalition of global food and agricultural conglomerates recently successfully petitioned the US Congress to establish the principle of Full Online Operating Disclosure (FOOD). Now, companies can print web site addresses or Quick Response (QR) codes on packaging to allow curious consumers to access unlimited data about how products are produced. It’s only a small step for the FSIS to require meat producers to provide full disclosure on ALL of their animal raising practices.
We strongly encourage the FSIS to put in place this requirement. Instead of keeping consumers in the dark about many of the practices used to produce different kinds and qualities of meats, now the FSIS can provide the kind of full disclosure on which true consumer confidence is founded. Knowing that the FSIS has on its side powerful industry interests advocating for full online disclosure is a huge plus.
In summary, it’s time to stop ad hoc, one-off marketing claims. America’s proud meat producers should finally be able to explain and promote all of their practices that ultimately provide safe, affordable and abundant meat products for American families.