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Conference Q&A to dissect USDA's stance on

grassfed livestock

click to enlarge Back to nature  chewin' cud on the open range. - COURTESY OF WHITE OAK PASTURES
  • Courtesy of White Oak Pastures
  • Back to nature chewin' cud on the open range.

As the organic food industry grows, so does the market for meat produced by members of the American Grassfed Association.

Headquartered in Denver, the group will hold a three-day conference in Colorado Springs this weekend, with seminars on ranching practices, marketing, certification and standards and many other issues related to raising pastured (as opposed to confined), grassfed livestock. A keynote speech by Fast Food Nation author Eric Schlosser, "The Education and Celebration of Real Farm Food," will be delivered during Friday night's dinner at the Antlers Hilton.

Sure to be a lively discussion is Friday's Q&A with Martin G. O'Connor, head of the standardization branch of the USDA, here to discuss the USDA's proposal for grassfed labeling standards. Representatives of the AGA have demanded national standards that more closely reflect the group's own strict requirements, including a diet as close to 100 percent grass as possible for an animal's entire life, with no grain or grain byproducts. The USDA previously proposed an 80 percent standard, which would allow for finishing livestock in a feedlot with grain, but has now raised the requirement to 99 percent.

"One of the [other] issues we're going to discuss with them," says Carrie Balkcom, AGA executive director, "is the issue of confinement. They have only been interested in the diet of the animal, and we're concerned because [the USDA] doesn't have a definition of free-range or pastured."

Local meat processor and marketer Mike Callicrate of Ranch Foods Direct, who will speak as part of a panel on Friday, says working with the USDA is futile and that producers need to focus instead on creating local markets and establishing relationships of trust with local consumers.

"I think we get into a lot of trouble when we try to get the USDA to help us," says Callicrate, whose company processes meat for many strictly grassfed producers, as well as others who finish their cattle with grain. "Even if you win the first battle [and get the requirement for grass feeding up to 99 percent], they will still win because they write the rules and are responsible for implementing them. And they ultimately answer to the big meatpackers in this country, not to farmers."

Those corporations, he argues, will use the USDA grassfed standard to open the door to cheap imports from Guatemala and other Central and South American countries where grain feeding has not been a standard practice.

Proponents of pure grassfed meats argue that high-grain diets cause physical problems for dairy cows, beef cattle, goats, bison and sheep, animals meant to chew cuds over a lifetime. Switching grazing animals from their natural diet of grasses, they add, lowers the nutritional value of meat and dairy products. The AGA promotes not only the humane treatment of animals, but also the flavor and better nutritional values of their products.

Joining producers and members of the AGA at the meeting will be representatives of the Slow Food movement, the national Chefs Collaborative, American Livestock Breeds Conservancy, the Weston A. Price Foundation and RAFT (Renewing America's Food Traditions). capsule

"Grazing America 2006": Q&A with Martin G. O'Connor

Antlers Hilton, 4 S. Cascade Ave.

Friday, July 21, noon to 1:30 p.m.

Q&A is free; for full schedule and prices associated with the three-day conference, visit americangrassfed.org.

  • Conference Q&A to dissect USDA's stance on grassfed livestock

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