Big Beef is at it again. Surprise. Last month, USDA announced that all those flowery words on meat labels like “grass-fed,” “free-range” and “raised without antibiotics” might be a lie.

As it turns out, no one has been minding the store when it comes to the validity of animal-raising claims. Such claims are voluntary. They are supposed to inform consumers, who care about such things, on how source animals for meat and poultry are raised.

Labels must be approved by USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service. FSIS last updated its guidelines to substantiate animal raising claims for label submissions in 2019. At first glance, it appears that FSIS requires rigorous documentation including:

1. A detailed written description explaining the controls used for ensuring that the raising claim is valid from birth to harvest or the period of raising being referenced by the claim.

2. A signed and dated document describing how the animals are raised, which may include feed formulations (e.g., vegetarian fed, raised without antibiotics, grass fed), to support that the specific claim made is truthful and not misleading.

3. A written description of the product tracing and segregation mechanism from time of slaughter or further processing through packaging and wholesale or retail distribution.

4. A written description for the identification, control and segregation of nonconforming animals/products.

5. If a third-party certifies a claim, a current copy of the certificate from the certifying organization.

Documents submitted to FSIS’s Public Health Information System staff are required to verify that livestock producers are complying with labeling regulations. However, compliance has more to do with having paperwork on file, then whether the paperwork is truthful. FSIS does not require empirical evidence to validate claims including those concerning antibiotics.

The Antibiotic Resistance Center along with Food ID conducted a study in 2022 looking at the veracity of Big Beef “raised without antibiotics” claims.

Results published in Science found 10% of tested cows at one slaughterhouse were positive for antibiotics from feed lots raised with antibiotics documentation. Even more concerning, some cattle set for labeling under the Global Animal Partnership program came from a feedlot with a positive test for antibiotics.

The bottom line is without empirical evidence and, at the very least, random spot inspections of beef producers, consumers can’t trust the labels. Making the lack of oversight even more egregious is that shoppers often pay a premium at retail for higher welfare meat.

Science study co-author Lance Price says:

“The USDA’s oversight is laissez faire. They test such a small fraction it can’t even be taken seriously. And they rotate the drugs they are testing for, because they can’t afford to test for all of them. They just don’t have the funds to do it. We raise 9 billion animals, and they test hundreds of cattle, not even thousands.”

USDA admitted as much last month in announcing it will soon be conducting a shiny new study of its own to judge the scope of the problem. USDA says, “The results of this project will help inform whether FSIS should require that laboratory testing results be submitted for the ‘raised without antibiotics’ claim or start a new verification sampling program.”

Well, USDA, the answers you are seeking are yes and yes. It’s appalling the government is willing to take at face value Big Beef animal welfare claims. It’s clear that some feedlots and slaughterhouses are ripping off consumers. USDA rubber-stamping animal welfare labeling claims must end. ASAP.

Type of work:

Opinion Advocates for ideas and draws conclusions based on the author/producer’s interpretation of facts and data.

David Dickey always wanted to be a journalist. After serving tours in the U.S. Marine Corps and U.S. Navy, Dickey enrolled at Rock Valley Junior College in Rockford, Ill., where he was first news editor...