Increasingly, meat producers are using processing and production claims to cater to niche consumer markets. However, the USDA says the definition of 'grass-fed' labeling is leading to consumer confusion. The USDA wants to establish new minimum requirements for USDA grass-fed certification.
More controversially, the USDA proposes to define 'grass-fed' to include vegetables and forage such as corn remnants, which are technically grains.
Moreover, the USDA proposal does not specify if grass-fed animals would have to openly graze in pastures. This means that grass-fed animals could technically be brought up in feedlots.
Typically grass-fed animals such as cattle, sheep, goats and bison are allowed to roam free in pastures. Since they are not fattened with grains and hormones they can take two years to reach slaughter size.
The proposed changes have sparked fierce debate within the meat industry. The USDA has received over 17,000 comments on the proposed changes, many from angry grass-fed suppliers that don't want to broaden requirements, which would increase competition from larger suppliers.
Grass-fed meats, along with other organic sectors, contribute to a small amount of the total national meat market, but the sector is experiencing explosive growth rates.
The American Grass-fed Association estimates that grass-fed beef alone makes up 3 per cent of the $78bn US beef industry. This percentage could grow up to 10 per cent in the next decade as the number of producers selling grass-fed meats grows.
The growth in demand for grass-fed meat has producers searching for supply. However, since there is no current USDA regulation standardizing the definition of grass-fed, many suppliers are selling animals that consumed grass only as a portion of their diet.
Compounding the problem, consumer perceptions vary on what grass-fed actually means. Some consumers understand it to mean free-range grazing solely on grass, while others, according to a National Cattlemen's Beef Association survey, found it to include oats, corn, hay and alfalfa.
Due to the confusion, the USDA has worked on defining 'grass-fed' for a number of years. The first recommendations were proposed in 2002 and were withdrawn after they met industry protests.
A great deal of the problem comes from the USDA's hesitance to regulate where animals feed because natural disasters could ruin grass feeding pastures, and thus reduce the supply of strictly-defined, grass-fed meat.
The current proposal states that animals must be fed on grass forage as 99 per cent of their diet. The proposal does not mention grazing times or feedlots.
The deadline for comments on the USDA proposal passed last month. A spokesperson for the USDA said that there was no set a timeline on when the final marketing claim standard for grass-fed will be published.